Jordin Sparks plays the title role in "Sparkle," but forgive me for thinking Whitney Houston does.
It's impossible to know if Houston's impact on the film would seem as profound if she were still with us, but she isn't and her charismatic performance in "Sparkle" makes that loss even sadder. With her raspy speaking voice feeling like the evidence of hard living, Houston lets loose on a rendition of the gospel standard "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," but she can break your heart with a whisper, too. Which is how she chooses to deliver a simple, devastating line that triggers the end of an estrangement: "Oh, Mommy loves you."
It's sometimes hard to watch Houston in "Sparkle." She plays the title character's mom, Emma, and you're practically invited to consider connections between the late singer's character and her real life because, unlike Houston, Emma got out of the music business before its stresses and temptations could kill her. "Is my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?" Emma/Houston asks her daughters at one point. Chills.
You see, Sparkle longs for a career in the music business, but strict, gospel-belting Emma forbids it. Also, Sparkle is too shy to sing lead vocals, so when she does manage to sneak out of the house and into a Detroit club (the film is set in 1968 during the heyday of Motown), she makes her older sister, helpfully named Sister, take the lead. Unfortunately, Sister shares some of Emma's weaknesses, and the wicked music biz begins to take its toll on her, too.
In a way, wicked show biz takes its toll on the movie, as well. Sparks has a big singing voice and an appealing personality, but that's not enough on-screen, where she comes off as bland. Her live performances are proficient, but she has neither the towering emotional power of Houston nor the sexy, unhinged danger of Carmen Ejogo, who plays Sister. And when the title character of a musical is only the third-most-interesting performer
There are more bad notes in the story. It's a melodrama, so you expect lots of soap operatics. That's fine when "Sparkle" is focusing on knock-down/drag-outs among Sparkle, her mom and her sisters (the other sister wants to be a doctor, but this is a musical, so who cares about that?). It's less fine when the movie throws in every other conflict you can imagine: spousal abuse, drugs, prison time and murder.
None of that stuff makes much sense. What with Houston's cool emoting, Ejogo's teasing sensuality and Sparks' likability, there's plenty on this musical's plate. Who thought somebody needed to get their head bashed in?
Movie critic Chris Hewitt can be reached at 651-228-5552. Follow him on twitter.com/ ChrisHMovie.
Directed by: Salim Akil
Starring: Jordin Sparks, Whitney Houston, Carmen Ejogo, Derek Luke
Rated: PG-13, for violence, drug use and language
Should you go? Yes. There's too much going on, but the good stuff, led by the late Ms. I Wanna Dance With Somebody, is really good. **-1/2
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