If someone said to you ’60s Motown musical film’, you would probably immediately think of Dreamgirls, but Sparkle - with its similar storyline and themes – could certainly rival the sass and soul of Dreamgirls, despite its smaller budget and production. A remake of the 1976 original, Sparkle stars Jordin Sparks, winner of the sixth season of American Idol, in her first major acting role, alongside the late Whitney Houston.
Set in Detroit, Michigan during the late 1960s when Motown and soul music was in its prime, Sparkle Anderson (Sparks) dreams of using her innate singing and songwriting talents to become a huge star. However, her insecurities and worries about disobeying her mother, Emma (Houston), as well as following in her footsteps by having a failed career in music, prevent her from being able to live that dream. That is, until she notices that her older, far more confident, fame-hungry and money-driven sister, Tammy (referred to as ‘Sister’), has a natural stage presence that draws in the audience. Subsequently, she meets aspiring record label executive, Stix, who is in need of an act to manage, with hopes of making them a star. Sparkle eventually encourages Tammy and her other sister Delores, to form a girl group called ‘Sister and Her Sisters’ managed by Stix, who she begins to form a relationship with. With their seductive dance moves, created and led by the sultry Sister, paired with Sparkle’s innovative, self-penned songs, ‘Sister and Her Sisters’ begin to make a name for themselves on the local jazz club scene. They start to win competitions, perform regular shows, even opening for Aretha Franklin – all the while, their overbearing, church-loving mother is completely oblivious.
However, cracks begin to emerge when Sister dumps Stix’s cousin, Levi, and quickly gets married to the ruthless Satin Struthers, a comedian and local celebrity. When Sister and Satin’s marriage becomes increasingly volatile – a sub-plot sadly given barely anything in the way of a backstory – Sister turns to drugs and alcohol, which leads to their mother finding out about their secret career, and any chance of sealing a record deal with Colombia Records destroyed. Once the group has fallen apart because of Sister’s personal troubles and Dee getting into medical school, Sparkle must finally take control of her own life and fight for her dreams to make it big.
Sparkle isn’t significantly different to Dreamgirls (although the original film was released before the Broadway show) or many other musicals – it’s the standard storyline of eager young talents wanting to be stars, while overcoming family and relationship troubles. The formula may be a little tired, but like most others, it’s the musical numbers which keep the film together. Soul singer-songwriter, Curtis Mayfield, was the main man behind the majority of the soundtrack and score, creating a mix of funky, upbeat soul-shakers (‘Jump’) and bluesy ballads (‘Something He Can Feel’). R&B artist, R. Kelly, also contributed some original material to the soundtrack, including the gospel-influenced ‘One Wing’ and ‘Celebrate’, a duet between Jordin and Whitney. Although Jordin is undoubtedly one of the best singers around today, exuding star quality when performing – more so, than as an actress – it is the late Whitney Houston, who steals the film with just one singing scene, belting out gospel favourite, ‘His Eye Is On The Sparrow’. Sure, her vocals may not live up to her golden years from well over a decade ago but it takes a real legend to completely overshadow the rest of the cast in one song.
Watching Sparkle is bittersweet. As a musical it delivers soundtrack-wise, despite a basic plot and overly familiar themes. However, seeing Whitney playing such a solemn and troubled character, while Sister’s storyline of domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse proving to be her downfall, it was like director Salim Akil had cast her almost purely out of irony. We would also liked to have seen Cee-Lo Green, who makes a brief appearance as Black at the beginning of the film, get a bigger part, but apart from that, Sparkle has enough shining moments that make it worth seeing.