Sparkle Review

by Michael Dequina (themoviereport AT gmail DOT com)
August 31st, 2012

SPARKLE (PG-13) *** (out of ****)

While Sam O'Steen's 1976 musical drama _Sparkle_
understandably has a devoted following to this
day, it has more to do with certain effective
elements--the charm of its cast, led by a
pre-fame (in more ways than one) Irene Cara as
the title character; the enduring original tunes
penned by Curtis Mayfield--than Joel Schumacher's
script, which while boasting a clear cut plot
hook (three sisters form a girl group in the
1950s) and memorable characters (such as eldest sister/frontwoman Sister, indelibly portrayed by
Lonette McKee) was a bit of a structural mess
with a number plot lapses if not outright
holes. And so it is an ideal property to polish
anew and remake--and director Salim Akil and
writer Mara Brock Akil have made more or less an
ideal example of how a remake should be: faithful
to the story beats and essence of the original
yet adding enough of its own personality that it
can stand as something distinctly its own, not
necessarily supplanting the original film but nicely complementing it.
The premise and general outline remains the same:
timid Sparkle (Jordin Sparks, in her film debut),
sensible Dolores (Tika Sumpter), and vivacious
Sister (Carmen Ejogo), daughters of single mom
Emma Anderson (Whitney Houston), rise to music
fame as a group, and with the rewards come the
pitfalls (the latter most especially experienced
by Sister) that set the young women off
individually on their journeys to become their
own fully formed adult selves. Similar to the
girls' arc, the Akils make smart and sensitive
adjustments that enables their film to grow
gradually and definitively apart from
O'Steen's. Most obviously, the time and place
are shifted from '50s Harlem to '60s Detroit, and
with that comes new issues both sociopolitically
and in the musical landscape; but less
immediately evident but more importantly, they
more clearly flesh out just about all the
characters and, hence, emotional motivations in
the film. If key character shifts at the core
add a more conventional air--this Sparkle, also a
songwriter, wants to be a star from the jump,
disposing of one of the more effective touches of
Schumacher's original script, where she, right
along with the audience, only over time realize
and recognize the superstar she can be; her love
interest Stix (Derek Luke), now strictly a
business manager, is thus even more of a
thankless part--elsewhere the Akils delve into
richer, more complicated territory. Dolores's
headstrong personality is now more rooted in the
Afrocentrism of the Civil Rights era; the smooth
Satin Struthers, who falls into tumultuous
romance with Sister, is no longer a
one-dimensional monster of a crime boss but an
established entertainer whose frustrations with
his declining comedy career are vented in violent
fashion--both clearly playing to new portrayer
Mike Epps's established persona and strengths
while giving him a chance to effectively show
different, darker shades. But the strongest
refinement comes in Sister and Emma. The mother
character has been completely reconceived (and
renamed, from "Effie"--presumably to sidestep any
further _Dreamgirls_ associations) from a
supportive and fairly passive (and barely seen)
bystander to a world-weary woman who herself once
pursued a musical career only to have those
glamorous dreams quickly crash down to harsh
reality. The line "Was my life not enough of a
cautionary tale for you?" is sure to be
(over-)quoted due to the tragic real-life fate of
the late Houston, but it also reflects how
savvily and effectively the Akils have paralleled
and mirrored Emma and Sister's trajectories.

But the beefed-up material would not have come to
proper life without the right actors, and the
whole cast brings their A game, whether in
covering ground familiar to them and viewers of
them but also in unexpected ways: Epps peeling
away the layers of the happy-go-lucky funnyman
fašade; Houston, in by far her best work as an
actress, being more approachably earthy and
piercingly gritty than the immaculately polished
pop diva of her prime; and Sparks using her
inexperience as an actress and her
_American_Idol_ winner insta-fame baggage to her
advantage, growing steadily, confidently from the
young innocent of her image to someone more
mature and strong. But even with solid work all
around, including sure-to-be under-recognized
utility players (Omari Hardwick lends genuine
warmth and palpable heartbreak to another heavily
retooled role from the original, that of Sister's
first paramour Levi; Sumpter's stalwart
presence being the steady rock for her two
screen sisters much like her character), there is
still a clear breakout: Ejogo. For once, this
talented, generally underutilized actress really
gets to show the depth of her range with such a
dramatic arc to play, bewitching and alluring in
the early stages and then completely devastating
as the hope and life drains out of her. But
beyond her technically solid performance, this
film announces her as foremost a capital-S
Star--look no further than her slinky, silky,
show-stopping rendition of the Mayfield-penned
classic (another smart choice--retaining the
original film's songs) "(Giving Him) Something He
Can Feel," so smoldering, sizzling, seductive
that both McKee *and* En Vogue's takes on the tune are quickly, blissfully cast into distant memory.

The tragic real life loss of Houston may
ultimately have cemented an enduring legacy for
this version of _Sparkle_, but hopefully with
time the Akils' film will be best remembered as
being a tribute to the talent of everyone
involved, for their collective efforts come
together to craft a genuinely stirring song.

(c)2012 Michael Dequina


Michael Dequina
The Movie Report:

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