Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Sparkle (2012)

Directed by Salim Akil.
2012. Rated PG-13, 116 minutes.
Jordin Sparks
Whitney Houston
Carmen Ejogo
Tika Sumpter
Brely Evans
Michael Beach
Cee Lo Green

Sparkle (Sparks) is a songwriter with stage fright. Since she still wants her music to be heard, she recruits her oldest and most brazen sister named Sister (Ejogo), no less, to take a bus across town and sing her songs at a nightclub. Eventually, the girls meet up with Stix (Luke), a budding promoter. With dreams of making them into the next Supremes, by the way this is 1968, he recruits their middle sister Delores and transforms the trio into a girl group. He then begins getting them work all over Detroit in hopes of making it big. Even though the girls are grown, Sparkle is the youngest at 19, all of this requires repeatedly sneaking out the house of their tyrannical mother Emma played by Whitney Houston in her final feature film before her death in February of this year. Yes, this is a remake of the 1976 ‘hood classic.

If the title leads you to believe this movie is about Sparkle, you’re only partially right. We don’t focus on her until the final act. Honestly, the original did the same so that, in and of itself, isn’t a major complaint. The difference is the girl’s relationship with their mother takes center stage in this version while it was only occasionally touched upon in its predecessor. This moves our title character down to third on the totem pole. It’s probably just as well. Jordin Sparks isn’t a very good actress so lightening her load makes some sense.

In the older movie, the mother is a supportive sideline player. Here, she’s the complete opposite. To make sure we know who’s in charge, Whitney Houston is in full blown, stark raving mad lunatic warden mode. You get the feeling the girls have to ask permission to use the restroom or risk her wrath. She embodies the role well. Sadly, it’s a role that feels specifically written for her. Emma is a woman who has battled drug addiction along with the ups and downs of the music business and now wants to protect her daughters from suffering the same fate, or worse. As she continually rages, it’s difficult to watch her, listen to the sounds come from her obviously shredded voice box and not think of her tumultuous real life and the once flawless pipes with which she serenaded us all. It’s distracting and depressing which makes it a morbidly effective portrayal.

Also of more importance than Sparkle is Sister. She’s clearly the most like her mother. Indeed, much of the film’s fireworks are made up of shouting matches between the two. In the role, Carmen Ejogo gives a powerhouse portrayal rivaling Lonette McKee’s in the same role in the original. Sister’s story also contains another excellent performance, albeit from a surprising source. As comedian Satin Struthers, the movie’s lone unrepentant villain, Mike Epps turns in what is easily his best work. Though playing a comic, which is how he started in his real career, he really does bring this character to life and not just rehash the old Mike Epps schtick.

People who love this movie, and there will be plenty, will do so on the strengths of the aforementioned performances, the music and prerequisite ups and downs of high octane melodrama. However, there are serious problems. Beginning with the second act, the movie shifts into overdrive, propelling itself forward at breakneck speed. The various strands resolve themselves suddenly and/or predictably, leaving plot holes in their wake. In this regard, it pretty clearly follows the Tyler Perry template of filmmaking: scream, bicker, fuss and fight until an instant moment of clarity, kiss, make up.

In comparison with the original, Sparkle also suffers mightily in the charm department. That one is flawed, but it has a much more genuine feel. The grit and grime of the Harlem setting infused the characters not only with a sense of urgency about changing their station in life but also a naiveté about the temptations even minor success may bring. It also gives us a sense of danger. The same could’ve been achieved for this movie in Civil Rights-era Detroit. However, we’re given what feels like a glamorized version of the city wherever the girls perform. At their nicely sized suburban home they want for nothing tangible and can retreat from one another in a way the girls in the original could not. There is a real sense of a unit breaking up as the older movie progresses. Here, each of the sisters wears their individuality proudly on their sleeve, weakening both their bond to one another and ours to them. The glossiness of the sets, flossiness of the outfits and four ladies constantly proclaiming “I am woman, hear me roar!” mark this effort as falling off the assembly line of movies aimed at black females over the last decade. Girl power is great and I generally applaud movies for the attitude but it misses the point of its predecessor.

MY SCORE: 5/10

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