Practically from the moment that “Dreamgirls” hit Broadway in 1981, fans of 1976's “Sparkle” insisted that the cult film about a 1960s girl group did it first and did it better on a frayed shoestring budget. But if the new version of “Sparkle” lacks the grimy atmosphere, exploitative plot and slapdash, 1970s grindhouse quotient of the original, it makes up for those losses with better acting, far more coherent storytelling and a period setting that corresponds with the deep, soulful sound of Curtis Mayfield's music. And as Whitney Houston's final completed work, “Sparkle” provides a poignant coda.
The original “Sparkle” featured fine performances by Irene Cara as the title character and Lonette McKee as the gorgeous “Sister,” the oldest and most troubled of the all-sibling vocal group, and while “Sparkle” was not a box office success, the album of songs from the film that Mayfield recorded with Aretha Franklin is a classic. It revived Franklin's career and contains some of Mayfield's best songs, including “Something He Can Feel,” which was a hit for the Queen of Soul in 1976 and then revived 20 years ago with a faithful cover by En Vogue.
So the original “Sparkle” is near and dear to many people's hearts, but the screenplay by Joel Schumacher — his first big-screen effort — is full of excruciatingly bad dialogue. As a vivid and accurate depiction of African-Americans struggling with 1950s Harlem life, it is exactly what one might expect from the man who would later direct “St. Elmo's Fire” and run the Batmobile into a ditch with 1997's “Batman and Robin.” It didn't help that director Sam O'Steen, a superb film editor (“Chinatown,” “Cool Hand Luke”) but barely hanging on as a director, could not decide what year everything was taking place — “Sparkle” had 1950s characters wearing 1970s hair and fashion and singing Mayfield's slick proto-disco soul.
Director Salim Akil and his screenwriting spouse, Mara Brock Akil (BET's “The Game,” “Jumping the Broom”), soften the harder edges from the original story but make important contextual and character changes that give the new “Sparkle” the ring of truth. Set in late-1960s Detroit, “Sparkle” takes place after Berry Gordy's Motown was already Hitsville U.S.A. but the city, wracked by riots and racial unrest, was facing tough times. Sister (Carmen Ejogo) is the radiant beauty of the family but has moved back in with her single mother (Houston) and her two younger sisters, Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) and Dolores (Tika Sumpter). Sparkle has natural songwriting talent, but Sister has the charisma, and aspiring manager Stix (Derek Luke) sees gold, as long as they can convince Dolores to defer her medical school aspirations and give her siblings Supremes-style symmetry.
The tragedy of “Sparkle” pivots on Sister's bad decisions, including dumping the loyal but penniless Levi (Omari Hardwick) in favor of Satin (Mike Epps), a rich comedian with a deadly mean streak. Ejogo is stunningly effective as Sister, who spirals quickly just as the group, dubbed Sister & the Sisters, is on the cusp of signing with Columbia Records.
Like the original, Sister's fall happens a little too quickly in the timeline, but Ejogo sells it and Epps comes off as the personification of evil as Satin drags Sister into a morass of drugs and abuse — this stand-up comedian has considerable range and a long career of great character roles if he wants it. And Sparks, in her first major acting role, gives the title character the combination of innocence and intelligence that makes her ultimate triumph feel true and believable.
The role of the disapproving matriarch is given a greater emphasis in the new film, one that befits Houston, who also served as executive producer. Houston died shortly after filming was completed on “Sparkle,” and the screenplay is filled with lines that both reference the superstar's troubled later life and resonate with poignancy in the wake of her death. She is in a supporting role, singing only one song on camera (a rendition of “His Eye Is On the Sparrow”), but Houston dominates the screen whenever she is present with a world-weary performance that feels all-too real.
The significant changes made by the Akils bring “Sparkle” into an inevitable comparison with Bill Condon's 2006 version of “Dreamgirls,” and it's completely fair to do a side-by-side analysis. “Dreamgirls” is a more traditional musical: people burst into song when spoken words can no longer sufficiently convey the emotion. In “Sparkle,” the characters are singing because they are performing, rehearsing, worshipping or trying to win a record deal. It is a distinction worth making — “Sparkle” seems to exist in a real place, whereas “Dreamgirls” occupies one idealized for musical theater. And while both films still heavily reference the Supremes, Sister & the Sisters actually live in world where the Supremes thrive and dominate, while the Dreamettes from “Dreamgirls” are a fictionalized version of Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson.
Inevitably, one of the key reasons people will queue up is to watch and hear Houston one last time, but the Akils supply many reasons for seeing “Sparkle,” not the least of which are the performances by Ejogo, Epps and a cameo appearance by Cee Lo Green. It is a rare remake that justifies its existence by improving nearly every aspect of the original story.
— George Lang
Starring: Jordin Sparks, Whitney Houston, Carmen Ejogo, Mike Epps, Derek Luke.
(Mature thematic content involving domestic abuse and drug material, and for some violence, language and smoking)