The most interesting parts of “Sparkle” are as follows: Beautiful but troubled Tammy “Sister” Williams (Carmen Ejogo) is nearly 30, unmarried and living back home in Detroit after an unsuccessful stint in New York. Mother Emma (Whitney Houston) tried but failed to make it as a singer, settling for life as a strict single mother of three.
Instead of showing these struggles, director Salim Akil establishes them in hurried sentences, thus setting the tone for this utterly sanitized musical.
Also interesting: Wikipedia’s summary of the 1976 original, starring Philip Michael Thomas (“Miami Vice”) and Irene Cara (“Fame”), which suggests gangsters, intrigue and glitter abounded. There’s glitter in 2012’s “Sparkle,” and domestic violence so exaggerated it’s nearly comic, but no gangsters and very little intrigue. Instead, Jordin Sparks blandly whines her way through the title role, a wannabe songwriter content to sing backup for flashy Sister and struggling to balance artistic dreams with Christian obedence.
Sparks’ scenes with love interest Derek Luke (as Stix, manager of the Supremes-inspired sister act) fall flat, and Tika Sumpter, wonderfully snarky as the third sibling in the group, is given very little to do.
Ejogo deserves an A for effort, gamely screeching overdramatic dialogue and using her considerable sex appeal in sultry production numbers. In turn, Mike Epps ekes some funny moments as Sister’s lover, Satin. A gangster in the 1976 film, Satin is now a comedian with a coke addiction and a propensity for hitting women. And Cee Lo Green packs a vocal wallop in a single scene; if only his character stuck around longer.
“Sparkle” was meant to be a comeback for Houston; the late diva owned remake rights for more than a decade and served as one of the film’s executive producers. As final projects go, “Sparkle” is a mixed bag. Thanks to Mara Brock Akil’s shoddy script, Houston’s character Emma alternates between overprotective mother caricature and tragic figure with questionable motivations.
However, one sequence in “Sparkle” outshines the rest. Presented during a church service, with simple accompaniment and sans flashy costumes, Houston’s rendition of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” is more moving than anything in “Sparkle” has a right to be. By the end of her life, Houston didn’t have it all. But she still had it.