In 1968 Detroit, if you wanted to make it big as a singer you tried your luck at the Discovery Club. A place that gives you the chance to make your dreams come true. But what price would you pay to make those dreams come true?
A remake of the 1976 film of the same name (best known for introducing Irene Cara and “Miami Vice’s” Rico Tubbs), “Sparkle” is a film that shines when the music is playing and is dull as a butter knife when it’s not. The story follows the paths of the three daughters of Ms. Emma (Houston, in her final film role). The oldest, Tammy (Ejogo) – who everyone calls “Sister”- has just moved back into her mother’s house after trying unsuccessfully as a singer in New York. Middle sister Dolores (Tika Sumpter) – “Dee” – is currently applying to medical schools. At age 19, Sparkle (Sparks) is a budding songwriter who wants to sing but is afraid she’s not as good as her sisters. The three sing in the church choir and, when Ms. Emma falls asleep, sneak out to play local clubs. But as their popularity grows so do the pitfalls that come with it.
Let’s deal with the elephant in the room – the late Whitney Houston. Like Heath Ledger she has left us with a fine performance. Her face weathered from her younger years of hard living (both in the film and in real life), Houston’s Ms. Emma is a God-fearing woman whose love and over protectiveness for her daughters becomes smothering. When things go wrong for Tammy, Ms. Emma fills the church with a shaky yet strong rendition of “His Eye Is On the Sparrow.” There is irony in many of her lines, including one where she warns her girls about a life of show business, asking “Is my life not a cautionary tale?” Along with Houston, the rest of the cast give strong performances, including former “American Idol” winner Sparks. She is following in “Idol” alumni Jennifer Hudson’s Hollywood footsteps (“Dreamgirls” is a very similarly themed film) though I don’t look for her to win an Oscar here. Male characters come and go, most notably comic Mike Epps in a rare dramatic turn and Derek Luke, who plays the groups manager and Sparkle’s possible love interest. And Curtis Armstrong has a nice role as a music executive who may or may not want to sign the group (Armstrong also played another famous music executive, Ahmet Ertegun, in “Ray”).
On the downside, when the story leaves the stage, or church, the film loses its ability to entertain. The audience is really given no timeline…the film starts in 1968 but by the end it could be 1970 or 1990! Characters, most notably Omari Hardwick’s Levi, come and go, often for huge chunks of time, with no real explanation of where they were or what they were doing. Which is a shame because there are characters here that you’d like to know more about.