Thursday, August 16, 2012

Black On Black Crime: Whitney Houston’s Final Film Gives Her Little Opportunity To Sparkle

The Good: Generally good acting, Good music, Moments of direction, Moments of character
The Bad: Exceptionally predictable plot, Some awkward acting, Consistently miserable tone, Moments of direction/editing
The Basics: With Sparkle Jordan Sparks gives a great performance while Whitney Houston goes stiffly into her final role.

Sometimes, when I encounter a film that has a lot of hype, I make an effort not to watch any promotional materials for the film. Sparkle, the final cinematic work of Whitney Houston, has generated a lot of enthusiasm both for Houston’s role and Jordin Sparks’s role as well. So, when I had the opportunity to go to a preview screening of Sparkle I went in pleasantly “blind.” And I left ultimately underwhelmed because Sparkle is so formulaic that scenes in advance, I was calling the sequence. So the first time coke shows up and someone gets beaten up, the seasoned movie viewer will see it coming a mile away.

Sparkle actually reminded me quite a bit of What’s Love Got To Do With It?. The fundamental differences, though, were that after seeing the Tina Turner biopic, I remember being deeply affected and What’s Love Got To Do With It? had two powerhouse performers working at the top of their game with Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne. When Sparkle was done, I was mostly bored and it only has an impressive performance from Jordin Sparks (though Derek Luke and Carmen Ejogo give frequently decent supporting performances. Despite the comparison to What’s Love Got To Do With It?, Sparkle is actually a remake of the 1976 film by the same name. It is well worth mentioning up front that I have not seen the 1976 film, so I can offer no comparison between that film and this one.

Opening in Detroit at the Discovery Club in 1968, Tammy sings a song written by her sister, Sparkle, in order to try to unseat the reigning talent champ Black. Her song draws the attention of Stix, who wants to be Sparkle and Sister’s (Sister being the name Tammy is known by throughout most of film) manager. In checking out the local churches for the vocal talent, Stix and Levi (who gets a big crush on Sister) manage to find Sister and Sparkle and when they enlist the other sister, Dee (Dolores) to create a Motown girl group. While the girls sneak out on their mother, Emma, to perform, Stix begins to get the group gigs.

The ascent of Sister and her Sisters is just beginning when the smooth and controlling Satin meets Sister. After undermining Levi, he makes a simple power play for Sister, giving her a big diamond ring. Sister leaves Levi and, despite Stix hustling pool to raise money tirelessly for new outfits for the group, Sister falls into the lifestyle Satin represents when they marry. As Sparkle and Dee struggle with Sister’s abusive relationship with Satin, they begin to get real acclaim on the Motown scene. When Emma discovers how her daughters have been stepping out, the conflicts reach a climax that will change all their lives.

Sparkle is a young composer and her essential character struggle is one of woman vs. self. She lacks confidence and as she encounters challenges from performing, her domineering mother and the emotional conflict that comes from watching Sister’s life fall apart, she comes into her own. Actually, one of the fundamental problems with Sparkle is that for much of the movie, Sparkle is simply the observer, watching as events actually happen to the other characters in the film. It is only in the final few scenes that she abruptly becomes confident. The resolution to the Sister/Stix plot suddenly transforms her into a confident person and while that type change makes a lot of sense for Dee, given her ambitions throughout the movie, it seems very abrupt for Sparkle (though not enough to seriously sink the film – I can buy the abrupt transition as a result of the culmination of a number of events).

But what made Sparkle drag in an upsetting way was just how predictable the film was. The moment Satin appeared in person in a scene that is absolutely wrenching as he takes Levi’s romantic gesture to Sister and mocks it mercilessly, the film becomes something that is formulaic in all sorts of troubling ways. There was no foreshadowing, for example, that Satin was a cokehead, but from the moment he appears in the diner, him using coke, getting Sister hooked on it and then beating her mercilessly seemed like a foregone conclusion. It just seemed like the troublingly obvious way that This Type Of Movie was going to go.

I was a bit disappointed by that; I think there is a great story to be told for the struggle of an artist both growing into her own and taking on the Industry. This is not that type of story. Instead, Sparkle’s conflicts are mostly external and she witnesses more than experiences throughout the film.

What is impressive about Sparkle is its fearless realism for problems within the black community (past and present). Sparkle very relentlessly portrays black on black crime in a way that few works do. The black community is not monolithic in its goals, personalities, or agendas (much like women, feminists, or pretty much any other demographic!), yet so many films that target the black demographic create a black vs. white paradigm. Sparkle does not do that. Satin is a clear villain and Sparkle adequately chastises him for being a pawn to white America, without ever illustrating that “white America” is actually demanding he “shuck and jive” the way he does. Sparkle illustrates a community divided, struggling to define itself during an important time in American history. And for people who want to make all conflicts two-sided (as opposed to the richly conflicted world where there are well more than two perspectives to any event), Sparkle can be a real eye-opener.

What is not an eye opener is Whitney Houston’s performance as Emma. Houston has little more than a cameo for most of the film and her supporting role in the final act is both minimal and utterly unimpressive. Emma is supposed to be emotionally reticent, but Houston is stiff and inhuman in the part. She looks strung out and tired throughout the film. She is granted a musical number near the end of the movie and it makes no real sense for her character. Even there, she seems restrained and struggling. Because, invariably, there are going to be comparisons between Houston’s performance in Sparkle and Heath Ledger’s final performance (which was actually in The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, reviewed here!), it should be noted that Houston’s role lacks the substance of either of Ledger’s last roles. But more than that, part of the brilliance of Ledger was there are no clues in those performance to his personal torment. Houston seems only conflicted and uncertain in her performance in Sparkle. There is no zest, no humanity, no realism to Houston’s performance and her portrayal of Emma is a depressingly simple one. One of the early moments of the film has a character saying of Emma, “She looks angry” and the shot turns to Houston as Emma. She looks tired and bored, with no hint of anger.

Conversely, Jordin Sparks is phenomenal. She plays mousy and confident wonderfully. She plays creative delightfully and she seems entirely plausible as Sparkle. In fact, the only moment that she appears as anyone other than Sparkle in the movie is during some musical riffs in the closing credits. There, she seems much more of a confident, experienced entertainer than Sparkle would reasonably be at that time. But, because the film is essentially over by then, it is hard to fault her for that.

Derek Luke gives a great supporting performance as Stix, never seeming at all overbearing or insincere. Omari Hardwick’s unfortunately brief role as Levi is distinctive and Mike Epps is slick and perfectly evil as Satin. Tika Sumpter enters Sparkle with a viperous quality, but quickly makes Dee one of the most human and emotionally rounded characters in the film. When Sumpter and Sparks actually have moments of interaction, they make the film’s best scenes.

Salim Akil proves to be an erratic director in Sparkle. There are moments where Akil is masterful – especially the confrontation between the sisters and Satin – but those moments are few and far between. During many of the early musical moments, even as Sister performs, Akil smartly keeps Sparkle in frame constantly and that is a nice touch for the focus. Akil is unfortunately sloppy at other moments; during one of the big musical numbers, I was shocked that the synching on the actresses and the soundtrack was dramatically off! But more than the direction, Akil is hampered by a script that reads as a formula story that offers the viewer absolutely nothing new.

Jordin Sparks’s cinematic career begins with Sparkle and it is hard not to predict that she will have a bright future (if she avoids Sister-like pitfalls). But for those looking for Whitney Houston’s legacy of greatness to be preserved, Sparkle is not going to be where one finds it.

For other works with Mike Epps, please check out my reviews of:
The Hangover
Something New


For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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