Friday, August 17, 2012

Sparkle: A star is born

Sparkle (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity, drug use, violence and profanity
By Derrick Bang

Mara Brock Akil’s screenplay for this updated remake of Sparkle is laden with moments — plot developments, dialogue exchanges — that cut so close to Whitney Houston’s grim, off-camera misfortunes, that one cannot help wincing.

Thanks in no small part to her flashier dresses, Sister (Carmen Ejogo,
center) gets all the attention when she and siblings Dolores (Tika
Sumpter, left) and Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) perform as a Motown
"girl group." Unfortunately, Sister's reckless behavior is destined to
change this dynamic.
Indeed, it sometimes feels as if one is in a constant state of wince.

Many of these moments don’t even concern Houston’s character. But the mere knowledge that Houston embraced this project — her final film, and her first big-screen role since 1996’s The Preacher’s Wife — adds a layer of pathos that I’m sure director Salim Akil (the scripter’s husband) exploited quite deliberately.

The knowledge that Houston died during post-production of what was intended as a comeback role — without ever having seen the finished result — adds an additional layer of heartbreak that tragically unbalances this film.

Which is a shame, because — unlike many remakes — this new version of Sparkle has much to recommend it, starting with the radiant title performance by Jordin Sparks. Mara Brock Akil’s script moves the story down different paths than those taken by the 1976 original — still recognized as a very important entry in African-American cinema — and not merely because these events have been bumped forward roughly a decade.

Some shrewd socio-political content occasionally surfaces from the overly familiar “Golly, but I’d love to be a star” underdog saga.

But 19-year-old Sparkle (Sparks) isn’t really an underdog; she’s more of a plain-Jane house mouse. That is, at least, how she sees herself when standing alongside her older sisters: the confident and accomplished Dolores (Tika Sumpter), who yearns to become a doctor; and rebellious wild child Tammy, better known as Sister (Carmen Ejogo), back in the family home after a decadent big-city sojourn from which — we gather — she was lucky to escape.

The setting is Detroit in the late 1960s, and all that era involves: the civil rights movement, renegade fashions and hairstyles, and — most crucially, to this tale — the enormously popular music of Motown. Sparkle and her sisters live comfortably in a middle-class home held together by their mother, Emma (Houston), a single parent who once had her own ill-fated fling with the music scene, and has endured by becoming a conservative church-goer.

(We almost can imagine that Emma might have been one of the cast-offs from the original Sparkle, which was set in 1950s Harlem and sorta-kinda echoed the rise of Diana Ross and the Supremes.)

All three girls have followed their mother into the local church choir, but they also sneak out of the house on occasion, to check out the more vibrant late-night music scene. The flamboyant, crowd-pleasing Sister even competes in club sing-offs, frequently crooning tunes written by Sparkle, who lacks the confidence to perform her own material.

Sister’s can’t-fail strategy for winning such contests involves slit skirts and overly suggestive body language, guaranteed to catch the attention of every male in the club. In that, she’s quite successful, attracting the interest of Levi (Omari Hardwick), a decent, hard-working guy she’d be lucky to catch and keep.

On the other hand, she also hits the radar of Satin (Mike Epps), a high-rolling comedian whose success with white audiences has come at the expense of uncomfortable stereotypes about African-Americans. Levi, all heart and sincerity, has but modest means; Satin, the epitome of upscale trash, exudes money. It’s not hard to guess whose flame will lure Sister’s all-too-willing moth.

Levi’s cousin, Jeremiah — usually called Stix (Derek Luke) — has the better taste to fall for Sparkle. Stix is driven by a similar dream of fame, but his moral compass points in more honorable directions. After learning that Sparkle wrote the song that Sister performed so memorably that fateful evening, Stix encourages the three women to join forces as a singing trio immediately dubbed Sister and her Sisters.

Sparkle, sweet on Stix, worries that she and Dolores have been used solely as a means to get Sister front and center; she is, after all, the crowd-pleaser. These concerns notwithstanding, things proceed smoothly ... for a time.

But not much time.

It’s not necessarily fair to blame any given film for the overly exploited stereotypes of countless predecessors, but familiarity does breed contempt. Sister’s descent into drug use and domestic abuse — having unwisely married Satin — have been clichés ever since Hollywood first embraced sound. Indeed, Diana Ross herself should have closed that book forever, when she so memorably played Billie Holiday in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues.

Mara Brock Akil does her best with this tired subplot, but she also doesn’t miss any of the predictable catastrophes.

Not that this reflects badly on Ejogo, who handles her character’s starry-eyed recklessness quite well. She’s electrifying and erotic early on, when in full command of Sister’s radiant beauty and performance talent, and persuasively damaged once hard drugs have done their worst.

We can be forgiven, roughly midway into the second act, for wondering why Sparkle seems such a small percentage of her own film. The script is canny that way; given a different title, we’d probably be quite surprised by the direction the story finally takes. For quite some time, Sparkle is the homebound “good girl” determined to obey and please her strict mother. More subtly, the sweet and trusting Sparkle is no less than the glue that holds her family together.

Sparks is completely credible in this restrained role: no small thing for the personable young woman who became the youngest American Idol winner (at age 17) in 2007. All that radiance and palpable talent remain wholly submerged throughout most of this film, which is frankly amazing. At the same time, though, we see glimmers of the swan waiting to emerge: the same potential that catches Stix’s eye.

Luke is thoroughly charming in that role: his first as romantic lead, and a logical next step for the young actor who blew everybody’s socks off in 2002’s Antwone Fisher. Charm aside, Luke makes Stix likable for the way this young man’s ambition — despite being all-consuming — never interferes with his honesty and integrity. Although Sparkle is the character who grows and changes most in this story, Luke’s Stix also matures, no less importantly.

Which brings us to Houston, who imbues every one of Emma’s stricken glances with a gravitas clearly lifted from her own tragic life: the grinding worry prompted by one wayward daughter, and the tight control exerted in an effort to prevent the other two from following suit. We can’t help thinking, each time Emma regards Sister with crippling sorrow, that Houston is closing her eyes and reflecting on her own past.

I’m not sure that constitutes “acting,” but it sure sells the character.

Houston also has quieter, gentler, happier moments, usually with Sparks; their mother/daughter dynamic visibly glows with love, even when the two women are at odds.

Epps is hissably vile as an unrepentant slimeball: a creep of the first order, whose debonair, Rat Pack-ish surface doesn’t even try to conceal his hateful qualities. He’s the walking personification of the perils of fame, and it’s to Epps’ credit that we occasionally see the sad, humiliated inner core of a guy who knows he has sold out for all the wrong reasons, hates himself for it, and compensates by punishing everybody else.

Totally chilling.

Sumpter is delightful spunky as Dolores, and I wish the film spent more time with her; just as Dolores often is overshadowed in the sister act, Sumpter too frequently is shunted aside by the script.

Hardwick is memorable, early on, as a sympathetic figure: all the more reason his later transformation to petulant jerk seems both out of character and under-defined. Curtis Armstrong is completely miscast as a Columbia Records executive: a part he cannot begin to make credible.

The music is phenomenal, of course, starting with well-deserved echoes of Curtis Mayfield’s hits from the 1976 film: “Something He Can Feel,” “Jump” and “Hooked on Your Love.” Several new songs come from R. Kelly, including Sparks’ bring-the-house-down finale, “One Wing,” and Houston works magic with a spiritual classic, “His Eye on the Sparrow.”

One or two decades from now, the immediacy of Houston’s real-world absence will have faded, and perhaps then this version of Sparkle will be better appreciated for its own merits. (Or maybe not: More than half a century later, Judy Garland’s version of A Star Is Born still feels uncomfortable, at times.)

Because while Houston may have intended this as a career-reviving project, Sparks definitely deserves it as a star-making vehicle. Without question, we’ll be seeing more of her.

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