Pop History Shines in Whitney Houston’s Sparkle

When Whitney Houston sings “His Eye is on the Sparrow” in Sparkle, her performance is unexpectedly good, stirring gospel. Playing the mother of three talented daughters who have formed a singing group that unravels the family, Houston’s heartbroken recitation also seems to be meta-cinematic. Drawing on her character’s professional disappointment, she testifies to something beyond the piddling plot and uncovers deeply reserved belief that’s rarely seen in pop cinema.

For those with movie memories, Houston’s choice of “Sparrow” goes back to the great Ethel Waters awesome rendering of the same song in The Member of the Wedding (1952). The comparison is worthy. Houston and Waters sang testimonies about their own struggle–and survival–in both narrative and existential senses. The history of black American pop culture suffuses this Negro spiritual chestnut. Houston’s performance makes Sparkle more than a comeback vehicle that uses a shabby tale of three young black women’s pop ambition; it also briefly revives overlooked artistic and spiritual history.

The original 1976 Sparkle was a terrific B movie–the kind of film the mainstream ignores but that gained a solid subcultural following. (If you don’t know it, you’re a victim of the segregation that still exists in film scholarship.) Its story of a black girl-group trio in the early 1960s has meant a lot to black moviegoers such as Houston who spearheaded the new remake.

Houston no doubt identified with Sparkle’s hard-edged, triumph-after-tragedy music industry story. The irony of Houston’s passion and her untimely death serves the remake–and not unduly. Houston’s personal history reflects the rough ambition and tragic potential that Sparkle–with its superb Curtis Mayfield song score, memorable characterizations and uncanny Joel Schumacher screenplay–outlined more realistically than any other backstage movie musical.

As a remake, this Sparkle is updated slightly to 1968 and set in Detroit. It explicitly references Motown whereas the original (set in Harlem) was inspired by the early history of Brill Building pop groups like The Shirelles and The Crystals, the rich R&B subculture that few films have acknowledged. It is only the misleading hype of the abominable Dreamgirls (a Motown knock-off) that is responsible for this unnecessary and uninteresting blatancy. Piggybacking Motown and (Dreamgirls) makes the new Sparkle less authentic and pushes it toward deceptive showbiz clichés. Yet a little authenticity sneaks in. As per Houston, the new setting describes a seldom seen lower-middle class, church-bound black milieu (Rev. T.D.Jakes is also a co-producer).

There’s some sketchy expression of the proverbial sacred/profane tension in African-American music, although not enough to truly distinguish this remake. It just doesn’t get very deep. Instead, the anxieties of success and ambition predominate–surely the inevitable influence of American Idol. Fact is, American Idol winner Jordin Sparks plays the title role of the insufferably sweet, innocent and genius young songwriter and singer. Her first defining dialogue states “I want to be better than Diana Ross! I want to be  star!” This changes direction from the original. Schumacher’s romantic mythologizing of early black pop represented the best kitsch of his kitschy career. Yet, Schumacher’s drama expanded to show the ethnic roots of the music industry’s financial chicanery.

However, this Sparkle avoids the original’s inquiry into the complex motivations of singers, managers, record company execs, drug dealers, et al in order to promote the entertainment industry’s vision of itself. It’s American Idol prevarication, attempting to make everything Glee-ful rather than  realistically, potentially tragic. That’s where the new characterizations disappoint. Lonette McKee’s portrayal of Sister, the group’s lead singer who falls for a small-time version of success, was one of the most dazzling debuts in film history. Few actresses could touch McKee’s incandescent performance (Pauline Kael compared her to Ava Gardner and the young Susan Hayward) so it’s Carmen Ejogo’s misfortune that the role of Sister has been turned into a reality TV-style fame-whore. Ejogo telegraphs her feelings and sings salaciously (a post-Madonna effect).

It was the parallel of self-destructive Sister and virtuous Sparkle that appealed to Houston. Black filmgoers understood the contrast as a fact of life and a rarely admitted paradox of professional ambition. This version diverts the lesson through Sister’s abusive relationship with Satin (Mike Epps), a comedian who represents black showbiz self-hatred. (“I’m more of a Sambo than a Coon.”) Nothing else in the film is as shrewd. The new script is stuck with the old script’s problem: goody-two-shoes Sparkle simply isn’t as interesting as dangerously  gifted Sister–Sparkle’s rise to fame lacks the excitement of Sister’s dramatic decline. (This version omits Sparkle’s deflowering by her puppy-love manager Stix.)

Houston and Jakes attempted a new myth featuring family redemption rather than extinction. Jordin Sparks, who smiles brightly and sings rousingly (R. Kelly’s “One Wing” is the film’s pop highlight), supplies credible modern drive but she doesn’t have Whitney Houston’s authority or complex moral background. Irene Cara’s original Sparkle seemed artless yet in grasping the various pop and soul styles of Mayfield’s masterful score, she idealized urban showbiz ambition.

It’s a credit to the talents involved that one wants more of Jordin Sparks’ closing concert sequence, but one really wants more from all these characters such as Tika Sumpter’s Dee and Omari Hardwicke’s Levi who, while following the original’s template, still lack its depth of feeling and casual authenticity. Nothing in Sparkle disgraces pop culture the way Rock of Ages did or is as lousy as Dreamgirls yet director Salim Akil’s shakey-cam methods lack a sufficient sense of place and emotional interactions. This Sparkle is still a B movie but the first is a classic.

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair