Whitney Houston's role in Sparkle, Salim Akil's sturdy and enjoyable remake of Sam O'Steen's nearly unwatchable 1976 film of the same name, is tailored to the late diva. As Emma, Houston plays the surly matriarch of a trio of singing sisters – Sister, Delores and Sparkle – and a former singer herself who was "almost killed" by the business. Houston, who co-produced the film, plays the role with the world-weary hoarseness apparent in virtually every public appearance she did in the 10 years before her death. Despite some moments of poignancy, this is mostly light fare and Whitney camps it up with bitchily dignified flair. It is her best acting role, which is not saying very much given that she never suggested she was anything more than competent on screen while alive, but nevertheless, it is a lovely swan song.
And knowing what we know about the end of Whitney Houston's life, it's really weird to watch her say the kinds of things she says in this role: "If you're gonna tell my tragic story, at least give me the favor of getting it correct," Emma says at one point. "You have never seen me laying in my own vomit."
"Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?" she says later, and then: "You can have a gift. It's how you use it."
People will see Sparkle to get their last hit of Whit, but it satisfies on other levels, too. The matte color scheme is chic, the costumes are as opulent as the late '60s setting demands, the songs are almost all excellent. Four of them are Curtis Mayfield-written numbers ported over from the 1976 original, but may favorite of all is Goapele's "Heatwave"-soundalike "Running." This is high melodrama, soap-opera musical queues and all, reminiscent of Valley of the Dolls in its stiltedness and wary regard of fame.
Sparkle is often trite – we know that the oldest daughter Sister (played by Evelyn Lozada lookalike Carmen Ejogo) will be punished for her greed, just as we know Sparkle (played by American Idol winner Jordin Sparks, who is only getting better as a singer but still needs to improve greatly as actress) will be rewarded for her kindheartedness and immense talent (she not only sings – she also writes songs). We know that the initially disapproving Emma will eventually come around and support her daughter Sparkle's musical endeavors.
But there are other things that it does really well with the story. In scenes depicting the strife arising from Emma's daughter's decisions and their mother's disagreement with them, for example, there are no clear good guys. The movie manages to empathize with multiple sides, giving it and its characters surprising depth. Though churchy, it is not above critiquing religion: Sister's no-good guy Satin (Mike Epps), a standup comedian, tells a condescending reverend, "You collect your fee at the pew; I collect mine at the door." Hard to argue with that. Once the film finds its pace (around the beginning of Act 2), it flies by and sometimes swoops artfully – a slow-motion fight between Sister and Satin is shot with a voyeuristic camera that pans from outside his mansion looking in through giant windows as they run. It's also really refreshing to see a depiction of a black family in the '60s that isn't poverty-stricken or desperate; these are middle-class people who want to improve their lives, but they are far from miserable. Delores rocks a short afro (much to the chagrin of her manager) and aspires to be a doctor. She is sharp and played more sharply by Tika Sumpter, a natural who's going to be a big, big star.
This would all be far less relevant without the presence of Whitney Houston. Dead or alive, she'd be the main attraction, and dead or alive, anyone who had followed her career would feel the same loss they felt during much of the past decade when she opened her mouth to sing and what came out was a diminished croak instead of a miracle. That happens at a climactic point in Sparkle, as Emma sings the gospel classic "His Eye is on the Sparrow." Akil focuses his camera on Houston's face for a good 30 seconds as she sings the song of hope and implicit sadness, her eyes looking tired under her tautly pulled face. "Why should I feel discouraged? And why should the shadows, shadows come?" she sings an octave or two lower than she would be if this were her heyday. She does the best vocal gymnastics she can, although they are more like somersaults than back handsprings. And yet, she's rarely sounded as soulful, as alive than when she hits the song's emotional high point: "I sing because I'm happy / I sing because I'm free…" In a movie that is too stilted to be great, this is an utterly human moment and it is gorgeous.