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Whitney Houston and Debra Martin Chase worked for years to bring this modern update of Sparkle to the screen. Based on the 1976 cult favorite written by Joel Schumacher, this remake follows the same basic story of three sisters who form a girl group, but moves the action from the 1950s to the 1960s. With Motown music in its veins, Sparkle maintains its old-fashioned sensibilities without becoming tiresome. Jordin Sparks and Carmen Ejogo are solid group leaders, and Houston plays a tough, weary matriarch in her final film performance. Sparkle feels familiar, but Director Salim Akil and his cast breathe new life into the dramatic material.
Sisters Sparkle (Sparks) and Tammy "Sister" Anderson (Ejogo) meet aspiring talent scout Stix (Derek Luke) while moonlighting at a nightclub. Stix praises Sister's powerful voice, and is surprised to learn that Sparkle wrote Sister's material. The girls hurry home to avoid the wrath of their uptight mother Emma (Houston), who found religion after years of singing and substance abuse. Stix urges Sparkle to recruit her other sister, Dolores (Tika Sumpter), to join her and Sister on stage as a three-woman group. The girls fear upsetting Emma, who has expressly forbidden them from following her path into the dark temptations of stardom, but decide to go forward with the plan. Trouble soon arrives in the form of a wily comedian, Satin Struthers (Mike Epps), who closes in on Sister and claims to have powerful record-industry connections.
Sparkle looks to its predecessor for inspiration, but works to improve on the original, which isn't exactly a critically praised film. When Houston and Chase first secured the film rights for this remake in the '90s, Houston was set to play Sister alongside the late R&B singer Aaliyah. The project sat in limbo until 2011, when Jumping the Broom director Akil signed on to steer the project. Chase says the timing was perfect for Houston, who was the wrong age to play Sister or Emma in the '90s. Houston, who died in February 2012 after filming wrapped, instead plays the world-weary Emma, a character whose struggles mirror Houston's turbulent life.
Much of Sparkle has been done before. The perils of stardom and the struggle to make it big have been filmed a hundred times over, but Sparkle is no less entertaining because of its oft-utilized dramatic structure. The film is tightly edited and nicely acted, and Akil hits the highlights as the Anderson sisters face a number of conflicts. Dolores's real passion is medical school, and she keeps one foot out the door. Sister foolishly marries Satin, who promptly abuses her and gets her addicted to hard drugs. Sparkle moves outside Sister's shadow, but lets fame go to her head. When Emma finds out what her daughters are up to, she harshly chastises Sparkle, telling her she will enjoy watching her fail.
Sparks does a nice job as sweet, innocent Sparkle, but Ejogo often steals the show. Sister went to New York and failed to make it, so she came back to Detroit to live at home. Sister is decidedly less naïve, and dumps her nice-guy boyfriend after seeing slick, wealthy Satin. Sister dives headfirst into her terrible marriage, and scuttles Sparkle's chance to sign with Columbia records. Some of the drama wades into cable-television territory, but Akil moves from event to event so quickly that viewers have little time to complain. It can be difficult to tell how much time passes between scenes, but Sparkle moves through several years in the '60s.
Sparkle pulls from material by R. Kelly and Curtis Mayfield, and its soundtrack features cuts from Sparks, Houston and several modern R&B singers. The music adheres to the '60s setting but feels timeless, and Sparks proves particularly adept at tackling the tunes. Houston's voice took a beating from years of hard living, but she gives a nice performance of hymn "His Eye is on the Sparrow." Houston's work here is certainly good, and it's an unflashy supporting role that anchors the film. Houston was brave to tackle a character with character flaws similar to her own, and Sparkle only adds to her entertainment legacy. Sparkle is far from perfect, but the passion of its producers, director and stars is evident in every frame.
Sony provides the film a sparkling 2.40:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer. This digitally shot film is highly detailed, with revealing close ups and a deep mise-en-scène. Colors are period appropriate, with vibrant reds and golds, and the complex fabrics and layers of the costumes appear nicely textured. Black levels are slightly less impressive, and move toward the purple glow of recent Sony releases The Amazing Spider-Man and Underworld: Awakening. This may be a result of the digital photography, and it's not a distracting problem. There is a bit of minor banding, but no obtrusive digital noise or compression artifacts.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix allows the film's soundtrack to shine, and surrounds the viewer with the pleasing vocals of Sparks and Houston. The music is rich, perfectly balanced and fills the entire sound field. Dialogue, including directional dialogue, is clear and well balanced, and ambient and action effects make good use of the rear speakers and subwoofer. There is quite a medley of elements here, but the mix retains excellent clarity throughout. French and Thai 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks are also included, as are English, English SDH, Chinese, French, Korean and Thai subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This single-disc release is packed in a standard Blu-ray case, which is wrapped in an attractive, sparkly and embossed slipcover. An insert with a code to redeem an UltraViolet digital copy is also included. Sony provides a nice collection of extras that should please fans of the film:
- Commentary with Director and Producer Salim Akil.
- A Tribute to Whitney Houston (19:50/HD) - The film's cast and crew speak very highly of Houston, who evidently touched each of their lives. Fans of Houston will no doubt enjoy hearing what a kind, motherly figure the singer/actress was to her young castmates.
- Extended Performance: "Hooked on Love" (5:04/HD) - This is a longer cut of Ejogo's club performance.
- A Dream Come True (17:31/HD) - This piece follows the evolution of Sparkle from its time at Warner Brothers with Aaliyah to its new home at Columbia Pictures.
- A Sparkling Performance (15:35/HD) - The film's dancing and singing are the focus of this piece, along with the impressive costumes.
- Sparkle and Shine (15:58/HD) - This featurette tackles some of the major characters and the actresses who play each role.
- "Celebrate" Music Video by Jordin Sparks and Whitney Houston (3:45/HD).
Whitney Houston's final screen performance in Sparkle is not as the film's lead, but the late singer/actress is sadly believable as a strict mother whose past demons mirror her own. Sparkle, a remake of the 1976 cult favorite, is an enjoyably familiar take on the rocky road to stardom, and Jordin Sparks and Carmen Ejogo impress as sisters looking to make it big in music. Sparkle is well acted and quickly paced, with a solid soundtrack and solid direction. Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.