Directed by Salim Akil and written by Mara Brock Akil, Sparkle tells the story of three sisters growing up in 1960s Detroit who scramble to parlay their church choir talents into fame and fortune in Motown.  Sister (Carmen Ejogo) is the oldest and the sultry lead singer of their singing group, Sister and Her Sisters.  Backing her up are younger sisters Dolores (Tika Sumpter), who cares about race issues and wants to be a doctor, and Sparkle (Jordin Sparks), who writes their songs and whose boyfriend, Stix (Derek Luke), is the group’s manager.

But there’s a lot more going on in this story than a simple rise to celebrity.  In contrast to your typical American Idol episode, this film means to explore stardom’s dark side as Sister succumbs to drug addiction and abuse at the hands of her sadistic boyfriend, Satin (Mike Epps). This 2012 remake offers a few interesting departures from the 1976 original, one of which is the character of the girls’ mother, played by Whitney Houston in her last film role before her death last February.

Instead of the supportive mother played by Mary Alice in the original, Houston’s character is fiercely opposed to her daughters’ involvement in the recording industry.  A singer herself, her past has soured her on the music business, and she just wants her daughters to be obedient and go to church.  Houston is fully convincing in this role, and her rendition of “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” is simply breathtaking, reminding us of what an immense talent was lost this year.  It’s so rewarding to watch a master performer do her thing, and Houston’s performance is the absolute highlight of this film.

Whitney Houston in Sparkle

However, Houston’s presence draws attention to one of its flaws, which is that there are several plot points and characterizations that are not fully developed.  For example, though there’s a hint that the girls’ mother has suffered some past trauma with regard to the music industry, the audience never learns exactly what this was.  References to the mother’s own relationship failures and substance abuse are brought in clumsily in one scene, but her past is never fully explained.

Another big deviation from Sam O’Steen’s 1976 version is seen in the character of Sister’s abusive lover Satin, who is now a wealthy television comedian instead of a Harlem gangster.

Mike Epps and Carmen Ejogo in Sparkle

Yet as the film’s villain, he’s too one-dimensional here.  He’s so cruel from the get-go that it’s impossible to imagine him as a real person.  Still, the remake does provide an intriguing plot shift regarding his character and gives us a climax that is more dramatic and effective than that of the original.

But the more glaring problem of this film is one that it has borrowed straight from the earlier rendition.  As before, the motivation of Sparkle herself is too blurry, and as a result the film’s title character comes off as bland and boring, especially in comparison to her more electric sisters.  Carmen Ejogo, as Sister, is a gorgeous siren who works the crowd in much the same way as the lovely Lonette McKee, who played Sister in the original.

Carmen Ejogo in Sparkle

Tika Sumpter brings out the fire in the character of Delores, the smart student with bigger dreams.  Both of them are much more interesting than Sparkle, who just does what others tell her and doesn’t seem to have any real desire or will of her own.  This may explain why Jordin Sparks’ acting at first seems stilted.  In a few scenes, she seems to be reading lines instead of truly inhabiting her character, but to be fair, there’s not much character there to inhabit.  Still, Sparks makes up for it by delivering a rousing singing performance in which she looks stunning in a red dress that shows off parts of her we haven’t seen before.

Final Verdict:  Sparkle’s singing performances are incredible, and the story is more complex than one might expect.  However, there are several plot points that aren’t fully tied up and a couple of characterizations (Satin and Sparkle) that needed to be better drawn.  Overall, though, fans of Whitney Houston will find it well worth their money to see her perform one last time.

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