During a scene in “Sparkle” between the title character and her sister Dee, Sparkle says, “If you don’t have something nice to say then don’t say anything at all.”
Ok, there are a few nice things — a very few nice things – to say about this movie, which I had hoped would be, and wanted to be, better than it is. First, the story.
It’s the late 1960s in Detroit and Jordin Sparks is Sparkle, an immensely talented singer and songwriter who lives in the shadow of the her gorgeous eldest sister, Sister (Carmen Ejogo). Unbeknownst to their Bible-thumping single mother, Emma — played by Whitney Houston in her final acting role — Sparkle, Sister and third sibling Dee (Tika Sumpter) have formed a girl group whose only chance of success seems to hinge on Sister’s sex appeal. The three adult sisters still live with Emma, who insists that they devote an hour a day to Bible study and who doesn’t approve of their taste in music.
Enter Derek Luke’s Stix, a wannabe music impresario who falls for Sparkle even before he learns of her freakish songwriting ability. Stix helps Sparkle articulate her dream of being a singer-songwriter but instead of nurturing her as solo act, he instead insists on managing Sparkle, Dee and Sister as a sister act. Disappointing for Sparkle — and given the lack of emotional impact that moment has, it’s disappointing for the audience as well.
Curiously, other than some dialogue invoking Martin Luther King Jr. and one scene in which we see him on TV, the racial tension that existed in 1960s America is largely absent from ‘Sparkle.’ The exception is comedian Mike Epps, who plays Satin, a famous comic who takes a liking to Sister and through whose character those racial tensions are played. Even so, it all serves to highlight Sparkle’s major weakness, which is a near complete lack of dramatic tension.
The most emotional moments in ‘Sparkle’ come from the fact that Whitney Houston is no longer with us, a reality that imbues her words and performance with a gravitas and meaning they might not have had if she was still with us. Unquestionably, it is moving, even rousing, to watch Houston performing the gospel hymn “His Eye Is On the Sparrow,” but the overall writing and character development in ‘Sparkle’ is so poor that trying to connect emotionally to this film is like trying to connect to a WiFi signal with a rotary telephone.
It pains me to write this but another of ‘Sparkle’s’ major weaknesses is star Jordin Sparks. It has nothing to do with the former American Idol champ’s singing, because she has an angelic voice and it’s always a pleasure to listen to and watch her perform. It’s her acting that needs work. Sparks can emotionally connect to songs but she’s never believable when reciting dialogue — and that’s a problem because you should never feel like an actor is “reciting” dialogue. She may be able to pull off a Broadway musical, as she did with In the Heights, but Jordin Sparks wasn’t ready for the responsibility that comes with playing the title role in a major motion picture.
Two out of five stars.