Salim Akil’s “Sparkle”—a comedy drama set in the 1960’s Detroit during the Motown era and a remake of a 1976 movie of the same name—has some impressive song numbers that do sparkle, literally, as does Ruth E. Carter’s costume design. And Gary Frutkoff’s production design perfectly captures the vibrant/retro look and style of the time period.
But when it comes to story and characters, “Sparkle” is almost a complete failure. When it’s not unbelievably cornball it’s overly melodramatic, and in some instances the melodrama is funnier than the scenes that are played for comedy. All of that and a musical story that’s as formulaic as they come, using the fail safe, “one final, spectacular show, wherein everything will work out” as the climax.
“Sparkle” tells the story of three sisters who share the gift of singing and who become a famous singing group, in the style of The Supremes. There’s the oldest, Sister (Carmen Ejogo), who has the most singing experience but is also the wildest, the one with a not so nice reputation and wants to get out of Detroit. Then there’s Dolores (Tika Sumpter), the jauntiest of the sisters, who likes to sing but would much rather go to medical school and become a doctor. And finally we have Sparkle (Jordan Sparks, you know, that woman who won American Idol a while ago?), who has ambitions to be a big time singer but is too shy, so she sings backup for Sister and writes the songs. They’re discovered by Stix (Derek Luke), a kind and sympathetic guy hoping to be a big time musical manager. He wants to make them stars, and takes a liking to Sparkle, who he believes has big potential.
But all of that goes against the wishes of the three sisters’ protective mother Emma (Whitney Houston, in her last starring role). You see, when Emma was their age she was also on track to be a famous singer but she got knocked up at sixteen and went through some hard times. Now she’s a reformed Christian, who only sings in church. There always has to be some kind of religion doesn’t there? To contrast with the young, hip, pop music.
For a while “Sparkle” is mainly played for laughs. No problem with doing that. That’s the way “Magic Mike” started out. But unlike “Magic Mike,” which was naturally funny, the humor in “Sparkle” is too silly and corny, Akil and everyone else trying too hard. There are a few tiny bits that work here and there but by and large the comedy comes off too phony and staged. Many of the comic exchanges between characters are made up of sassy set ups, followed by “Oh no he didn’t!” or “Oh snap!” style punch lines. It feels like a really bad sitcom. The laugh track is the only thing missing.
But wait, it gets even worse when “Sparkle” turns serious and melodramatic. Sister gets into an abusive relationship with a comedian named Satin (Mike Epps) and soon she becomes hooked on drugs, and the bruises start appearing on her face. More so, Emma gets wind of what’s going on and causes her to get into fights with all three of them. Most of the arguments consisting of “This is my dream!” and “don’t make the mistakes I made!” speeches and variations of them. Again, no problem with making the movie serious as well as funny. But the melodrama in “Sparkle,” much like the humor, feels so artificial and overplayed. The script by Mara Black Akil and Alan Rosenman is filled with incredibly cheesy lines like, “What else has he been pushing into you besides his fists?” Or “You’re not Aretha Franklin, you Sparkle!” In some cases the melodrama is funnier than the scenes meant to be funny. More so the handling of the melodrama, from a filmmaking standpoint, is laughable. There’s a serious and important scene where Satin beats Sister with a belt. Instead of just shooting it straight on and bluntly like he should have Akil decides to make it slow motion, and the editing is chaotic and wonky, making it look stupid and overdramatic instead of raw and tense.
Now, to be fair I can’t condemn any of the actors. They do the best they can but the characters are just too flat and one-dimensional. Stix is kind and sensitive but bland; Dolores is sassy and smart alec but too one note. Sparkle is nice and delicate but she’s the most cliché out of all of the sisters: a sheepish church choirgirl with big dreams. And then there’s Houston. The former singer and partial actress is, for the most part, reduced to wearing hair curls and baggy night gowns like a grandma, scolding the girls for sneaking out and disobeying. It’s a little sad that her best moment comes when she sings a gospel song during church.
Meanwhile, Ejogo is the only one who manages to put some soul into her character. And Sister is actually the most interesting of the three. Her character, while not prone to clichés, felt the most genuine and her outcome felt the most true to life, in this otherwise sappy, overly serious fantasy. But even she’s not enough to save this picture, which has too much sparkle and not enough substance.