Saturday, August 25, 2012

Sparkle, Sparkle!

On February 11, 2012, the entertainment industry lost one of its most talented performers with the death of musician Whitney Houston. Though her life was filled with problems and addictions that the star could not quite get a handle on, nobody could say that she lacked the talent to be everything most of us could only hope to aspire to. Her biggest heyday might have definitely been in the eighties and nineties, but Houston had managed to stay relevant throughout the new millennium, and the fact that her starring appearance in Sparkle has been what has drawn people to this remake of the 1976 film of the same name is a testament to her reigning popularity even today. But is her performance in this movie enough to actually recommend it to the casual viewer? Or is this just an overcooked presentation designed to give her one last Hollywood Hurrah?

In 1968 Detroit, Motown is king, and Sparkle (American Idol winner Jordin Sparks) secretly desires to be part of it. Her mother Emma (Houston) once tried to strike out as a singer and fell quickly from grace, and Emma has since devoted herself to the local church, not wishing her three daughters to go through the same things she suffered. But Sparkle's desire and talent as a singer and songwriter break out, and soon she and her older sisters Sister (Carmen Ejogo) and Dee (Tika Sumpter) are making a name for themselves based on the songs she writes. Just as things are looking their best, fame takes hole, and Sister falls victim to drug addiction and an abusive relationship. When Emma learns of the group and expresses her disapproval, Sparkle is thrust into the impossible decision between family and seeking her shot at the spotlight.

This is the type of movie you're expecting...
Let me start off by saying that despite any issues this film has, I actually liked what was put before me. And it wasn't for the reasons I would have thought, either. Setting the film during the height of the Detroit music scene presents an amazing soundtrack, one of the best I've heard this year. While many of the tracks, especially those written by legendary artist Curtis Mayfield, come from the soundtrack of the original Sparkle, they manage to sound far fresher today than they did back in the seventies. The excellent "Something He Can Feel", which the first movie introduced before both Aretha Franklin and En Vogue made it a #1 hit, is as entrancing now as it ever was. And the additions by modern R&B artist R. Kelly, the most prominent of which is the Sparks track "One Wing", manage to fit perfectly with the film's tone while amazing the audience with the sheer power of the performance. Not only are the tracks wonderfully captured on film, but the performances themselves defy expectation. Houston is of course pitch perfect, while Sparks will stagger you once she actually gets an opportunity to show off her vocal chords.

While THIS is the movie you get! Wowzers!
Sparkle also features a strong tide of acting performances, some of them from places you wouldn't expect. Sparks is one of the film's bigger surprises. As she's making her feature film debut, you might expect that she would rely more on her singing than her acting. But despite the fact that she doesn't get to blow us away until the final act, she actually does a decent job on the acting side of things, contributing a bit more than you might expect. Also putting their best feet forwards are supporting actors Sumpter, Derek Luke, Mike Epps, and Omari Hardwick. Though they play relatively straightforward characters, each take their work very seriously, playing their parts as honestly as they can. Epps especially stands out, the comedic actor striving down a dark path with an intense, charged performance that will shock you if you've seen him before.

You'll never see Friday after Next the same way again.
But this film soars on the shoulders of one performance, but to my shock that job did not fall to Whitney Houston. In fact, while I was impressed with the job Houston did overall, I was also surprised when her disapproving mother hen character appeared less and less as the film progressed, only to resurge in the final act. Though it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the role, and she does have more than her fair share of moments, the muted nature of the character simply didn't wow me as much as I thought it would. Instead, I hold all the praise in the world for Ejogo, whose portrayal of Sister is deserving of far more than pretty words on a computer screen. I don't know where the British Nigerian actress has been hiding, as how such a source of monumental talent has gone unnoticed all this time is a shock, and is the perfect example of how often black actresses are overlooked in Hollywood. If someone as beautiful and classically talented as Carmen Ejogo cannot get recognized after this performance, then the system simply doesn't work. Needless to say, she's my new favorite for Best Supporting Actress once award season rolls around.

Take them! Take ALL the awards!!
When Sparkle first reared its head, I feared we were in for an inferior Dreamgirls clone, which isn't a stretch since both films were loosely based on classic Motown group The Supremes. But for all its melodrama, cliched plot devices and weak moments, I really LIKED Sparkle. I loved the acting, the music and the spectacle, and the film really outdid my early expectations by making me care about the characters whose lives were tossed about by the tale. Director Salim Akil has done an amazing job here, notable in that it's just his second feature film. It's not perfect, and Houston could have used a better sendoff than this for her legacy. But there's more to like here than not, and Ejogo's performance alone is worth the price of a ticket. See this and tell me I'm wrong.

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