Whitney Houston, Jordin Sparks. Written by Mara Brock Akil. Directed by Salim Akil.
FILM SYNOPSIS: Jordin Sparks has the lead role in this remake of the 1976 musical drama about a singer and her two sisters striving to become a dynamic singing group during the Motown-era. Whitney Houston plays their mother and also served as the filmís producer. Ms. Houston died three months after the filming completed.
PREVIEW REVIEW: This kid-wants-to-be-a-star-but-parent-says-nay theme has become a genre unto itself. Theyíre like sports movies, not just with a beginning, middle and end, but with a step-by-step playbook that seldom strays from ordinary into the realm of uniqueness. Some shine despite their limitations, some donít. The latest entry, Sparkle, does and it doesnít. But despite its flaws, and we will discuss those, I enjoyed the film and seeing Whitney Houston one last time.
Jordin Sparks, who won American Idol in 2002, is a novice actress given a major role before her time. Like Jennifer Hudson (also an American Idol contestant and Oscar winner for her debut movie Dreamgirls), Ms Sparks, while showing some signs of ability, has little flint in her screen persona. Sheís more a diamond in the rough. As I say, thereís ability there, but as much as we would hope that winning a talent test on TV would guarantee superstardom, that magic doesnít always transfer to the big screen. Sheís not without charm; sheís just not as memorable as say Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl.
Though Ms. Sparks has the musical chops, she is not yet seasoned enough dramatically to carry such an important role. Whatís more, being able to vocalize with the earsplitting volume of Tarzan doesnít make you a great singer. Now, I am in the minority on this point, as this generation seems to be enthralled by singers who highlight each number with a yodel-like vibrato in place of tonal texture and phrasing. Very few singers today are able to color a note. They just blast it. Of course, if I were able to convince under-thirties to listen to Streisand sing A Piece of Sky from Yentl or Ella Fitzgerald sing anything, the performances would probably go unappreciated. Styles and sensibilities change. To each his own. But dramatically, I stand by my assertion. Ms. Sparks doesnít have the dramatic skills to bring a spark to her Sparkle.
As for Whitney Houston, I grant you she had something that caught the interest of pop lovers of the Ď80s, but no one did yodel-like vibrato as much as she did. If thatís your taste. I didnít like it when Johnny Weissmuller did it, and I didnít like it when Whitney did it. As for her movie roles, with exceptions (The Bodyguard), she was a one note actress. But there is no denying, she was beautiful and charismatic in front of the movie camera. And in this, her last role, she still has a screen presence thatís hard to ignore.
My major problem with Sparkle isnít the acting, but rather the script. It must be difficult to bring something edgy, emotional and new to a retelling of this familiar plotline. Perhaps thatís why we shouldnít write off older films such as Funny Girl or Tender Mercies just because they show signs of age. Sparkleís storyline seems so constructed by the numbers that it lacks any freshness. True, the problems the characters undergo happen over and over in true life. Still, it seems unnecessary to keep making this film over and over when it has already been done so well in past film efforts.
Sparkle also lacks that one nameless dynamic found in Funny Girl, or even Chicago. While there are several nice moments in the film, the ever present emotional tug of the plot never seems to effectively reach the viewer. At least, not this viewer.
Then thereís the religious aspect. While Christ and the church are not disrespected, it is once again a movieís most religious character that has to learn forgiveness. Thatís generally true, as we Christians are often guilty of a more comfortable understanding of religious law than Godís grace. But what does this myopic view of the Christian walk say to the un-churched? When spiritual matters in a film are presented with a heavy hand (Easy A), rather than with compassion (Places in the Heart), the secular community often gets a biased and one-dimensional view of people of faith. That was my problem with this picture. The pastor and his flock seemed a bit cartoonish. In an effort to make the pastor interesting, he merely came across as a caricature.
The filmmaker relies on two antagonists to fuel the narrative; the mother for her strictness, and a male self-promoter for his dastardly deeds (he uses and abuses people, then, after consuming drugs, becomes physically abusive to the very woman he purportedly loves). A lack of cinematic finesse when dealing with the antagonists can leave the production boorish. Such is the case with Sparkle.
All that said, and there are other film infractions, still, I found it an enjoyable movie-going experience. The three sisters are likable and fully realized, and both Mike Epps as the bad guy and Derek Luke as the good guy handle their parts with aplomb. The score is terrific and, with an exception of the busy hand-held camera (evidently like sound and color, the shaky hand-held camera is here to stay), the production values are top drawer.
Hereís my favorite moment. Whitney sings ďHis Eye is On the Sparrow.Ē Though I said Iím not a big fan of her music, I must admit this was the highlight of the film. The song, and that screen moment, pay tribute to Godís love and His omnipresence. In Hebrews 13: 5, it says, ďNever will I leave you; never will I forsake you.Ē The song makes that statement. At some point Whitney Houstonís character (and I believe and pray Ms. Houston did, as well) was reminded of that promise and eventually embraced it.
A Star Is Born
Funny Girl (forget Funny Woman, because even though Streisand is, Woman isnít)