Movie Review: Sparkle
By Matthew Huntley
August 28, 2012
Sparkle has all the makings of a standard music biopic, only it’s not based on any real people. That last part probably explains why it feels so irrelevant and inconsequential. Then again, the genre may have something to do with it. Biopics, particularly ones based on music artists, have become so commonplace that their last remaining hook is that they’re based on real-life individuals, which inherently sparks our interest and curiosity. Sparkle doesn’t have that luxury, so it already has an uphill battle in trying to get us to care about its fictitious characters. And even though it contains all the familiar, typically reliable biopic elements - the talented yet cautious artists who are new to fame and fortune; the strict, disapproving parental figure; the smooth-talking manager; the pre-established celebrity; the drug abuse; the domestic violence; the downfalls; and finally the redemption - the movie struggles to find a higher purpose.
The story finds three African American sisters, each of about 20, forming a musical group and playing the local clubs in hopes of signing a record deal. Such a premise is not unfamiliar to us and the movie will no doubt call to mind other films like it, including Dreamgirls, which itself was pretty standard. Granted, these types of films are not outright bad, but they ride such a conventional wave and contain so few surprises that it’s hard to invest deeply in their happenings. Every act in this movie plays out like a bold header in the “music biopic” chapter of a “how to write a screenplay” book. The one area where it stands out is the music itself, which is rhythmic, lively and energetic. If there’s any reason to see the movie, it’s for the soundtrack, but even that you can listen to separately.
The film opens in 1968 in a seedy Detroit club called The Discovery Room, where the youngest and oldest sisters, Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) and Sister (Carmen Ejogo), eagerly await performing in front of an audience for the first time. Actually, it’s only Sister who will be performing, since she has the presence, the moves and the vocal talent. But it’s Sparkle’s song she’ll be singing, and although Sparkle is shyer and more prudish, she’s just as talented. And like all heroines in these movies, she’s reluctant to pursue her dream. Her domineering mother (the late Whitney Houston), herself a former singer, has made it clear that music is a waste of time and practically blasphemous. Unfortunately, that’s about as much dimension as Houston’s character is given. She’s only allowed to play the bitchy, uncompromising mother who barks orders and issues looks of disapproval. One of the movie’s problems is its limited introspection with regard to its characters.
After Stix (Derek Luke), an up-and-coming manager, sees the girls perform and hears Sparkle sing one of her own songs, he’s convinced they have what it takes and immediately jumps at the chance to represent them. Soon enough, Sparkle, Sister and their middle sibling, Dolores (Tika Sumpter), become overnight sensations and we watch as all the usual plot developments unfold.
During the movie, one thought kept passing through my mind: there’s got to be more to it than this. Surely Sparkle, in this day and age, can’t just be about the rise and fall of a music group. We’ve seen this premise hundreds of time, and in fact, this is a remake of a 1976 film of the same name and likely the same plot. But no, that’s really all it is, and while the movie isn’t exactly boring, it never aims to be higher than average. All the usual drama and conflicts ensue, including the sisters struggling to break free of their overbearing mother; or Sister descending into a life of substance and spousal abuse after she marries a local comedian named Satin (Mike Epps), who’s stricken with anger and frustration when he finds himself suddenly standing in his wife’s shadow. Through it all, Dolores is merely a bystander while Sparkle, the innocent virgin with the purest heart, stays straight so she can prove, in the end, that dreams really do come true.
Despite all its conventions and clichés, I did find myself getting caught up in Sparkle. It’s bright, sensational and the music is captivating. The plot doesn’t require you to think very hard and shortly into the opening act, it’s obvious the film won’t showcase the strongest of performances, but it holds our attention, even if it is on a TV-movie level. Ultimately, this wasn’t enough for me, but it may be for some. One bright spot is Sparks, who’s radiant and enormously likable on-screen. The camera loves her and if she can sink her teeth into a more challenging script, she’s bound to have having a long career ahead of her in the movies.
As for Houston, it’s unfortunate that her untimely death made Sparkle her last film (she too had a promising career in the movies). Granted, she does play the protective mother who eventually comes to the rescue and realizes her youngest daughter’s talent should be nurtured instead of discouraged. And it’s fitting, I suppose, that her character passes down the torch, which many will likely see as a case of art imitating life. But while this is sweet to think about and may bring Houston fans some closure, I still wished the movie to be more original and daring. In short, I wanted more reasons to care about what was happening.