Even though I have never seen the 1976 movie that inspired Sparkle, I already felt like I had seen it. That's because the screenplay reads like an explosion at the inspirational music movie cliche factory. There's not a single moment that can't be predicted here. This is one of those movies where you can walk in 30 minutes late, and pretty quickly figure out everything that came before, and everything that's going to happen.
Stop me if you've heard this plot before - Three young black girls dream about being a Motown music trio. One of them is big, brash, and has the best singing voice. One of them is the overachiever. And the third is the little mousy one who doesn't stand out much, but is secretly the most talented of the three, both as a singer and a songwriter. She just needs to find the right man to believe in her, and bring out her talent. The three girls are under the thumb of a very strict mother, who is very religious, and pretty much sees everything that her girls think is fun as "the devil's work". They go against their mom's wishes, and quickly skyrocket to fame with their music act. But then, trouble hits. The big, brash lead singer gets involved with an abusive and slimy man who frequently beats her, and gets her hooked on drugs. It looks like the act's going to have to break up. But then, the little mousy one finds the power to believe in herself and her talent. With the help of her supportive boyfriend, she starts a successful solo career. And of course, her strict mother who has been against her dreams from the very start, is there in the audience, nodding approvingly, and cheering the loudest when the girl sings her big number at the end.
You can probably name at least one movie with that exact same plot. If you can, you've already seen what Sparkle has to offer its audience. At the very least, it does have a bright and hopeful performance by Jordin Sparks, a former American Idol winner who makes a likable screen debut here. I look forward to seeing her in better material. For now, she plays the titular Sparkle, the mousy one of three sisters, which includes the big, brash Sister (Carmen Ejogo) and the overachieving Dolores (Tika Sumpter). Despite Sparkle getting her name in the title, a lot of the movie seems to revolve around Sister. She's the one who lets fame go to her head too early, and she gets seduced by a smooth-talking, oily comedian named Satin (Mike Epps). Within two minutes of marrying her, he starts beating her routinely, and forcing cocaine upon her. No explanation is given as to his change of heart toward her. He knows he's the villain, so he does what the audience expects of him.
The other half of the movie is supposed to be about Sparkle finally becoming her own person, believing in herself, and standing up to her God-fearing mother. Unfortunately, none of this resonates, because the script doesn't seem all that interested in her transformation into a confident woman. It seems much more interested in the melodramatic story of Sister's decline into drug addiction. Once that's been resolved, it hurries through the obligatory scenes of Sparkle moving out of her home, mending things with her boyfriend, and winning over a record executive, who agrees to give her a chance. It's almost like the movie can't wait to get itself over with. I could certainly sympathize with the desire for a quick end, but it's always kind of depressing to see a movie not that interested in its main character.
And then, of course, there is Whitney Houston, giving her final performance as the girls' mother. For an entertainer's swan song, this is a depressingly low key one. Nothing about Houston's performance stands out. Her voice is usually raspy, and whenever she's supposed to be angry about something, she never quite seems as angry as she's supposed to. Her key moment in the film comes when she gets to sing a number in a church scene. Even this disappoints, as it seems she has a harder time hitting those high notes she was once famous for. This is not a strong performance, and far from a fitting send off for one who was a great entertainer. At one point in the film, someone tells her character she looks tired, and she responds that she is. I seriously could not tell if this was dialogue, or the actor having a moment of honesty, given Houston's sadly lethargic performance here.
I think what ultimately bothered me the most about Sparkle is how over the top it is. Yes, I understand that this is supposed to be a melodrama. But director Salim Akil (Jumping the Broom) takes things to such extremes that the movie borders on self-parody at times. The chief offender is how the movie will at times go into slow motion for seemingly no reason. Maybe he thought this was heightening the tension of certain scenes, but given the over the top performances from the actors, these moments end up getting some unintentional chuckles from the audience. Everything's so broad and so forced, we can't believe in these characters. A more subtle approach would have been appreciated. This movie's approach is to bash you over the head to the point that you start to feel physically assaulted.
Sparkle was obviously made with the best of intentions, but it finds so many ways to go wrong, it just cannot be ignored. At the very least, it does prove that Jordin Sparks does have what it takes to carry a movie. Now if she'll just be a bit choosier with her next project, she'll really be on to something.
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