By Wesley Morris
Most remakes force you to ask why anyone bothered. They’re either so faithful or so much worse than what inspired them that the only way to watch the new version is cynically. “Sparkle” is a remake of a girl-group drama from 1976, and it’s obviously been made by people who saw the original and thought, “What on earth was that?” It’s a better movie than what’s inspired it, but that fails to explain much. It’s like preferring the line at the concession stand to the one for the bathroom.
The first movie jammed black politics, black feminism, mother-daughter relations, domestic violence, and the alleged story of the Supremes into a blender. The result was a grim, raggedy-looking 98 minutes, directed by Sam O’Steen, co-written by Joel Schumacher, and set to new music by Curtis Mayfield, who, at the time was near the height of both his ingenuity and his multitasking.
You never really knew why you were supposed to care about the heroine, Sparkle, who was played by the Irene Cara. Some of this had to do with the fact that you often couldn’t see her. “Sparkle” remains one of the most flagrant examples of what happens when Hollywood is desperate to showcase black people without first figuring out how to properly light them. Calling such a dark movie “Sparkle” still feels like an accidental show of contempt. (O’Steen was white, but it’s not just white filmmakers who are guilty of this. It took Tyler Perry at least four movies to find a way to light his cast as Streisandly as he lights himself.)
In any case, Sparkle and her two sisters find themselves caught up with scrumptious Harlem men — Philip Michael Thomas and Dorian Harewood — who hustle the trio into the music business. Things turn ugly. One sister dies, the other disappears, another is forced to triumph. If it was truly the story of the Supremes, it was the Supremes by way of Agnes Nixon and Iceberg Slim. When the movie’s over, you’re at a loss for two reasons — well, there are more than two, but only two are worth going into here. The first is that Mayfield’s luscious arrangements make no sense in the movie’s late 1950s-early 1960s setting. The other is that the most charismatic of the girls takes the movie with her when she leaves. Lonette McKee played Sister, and she’s such a natural astonishment that it’s insulting that the movie would carry on without her.
The remake corrects nearly all of this. For starters, it’s been situated in late-’60s, early-1970s Detroit, which allows the filmmakers to impose upon the story the political and pop-cultural moment (Martin Luther King and Aretha Franklin’s names are dropped, somebody gets an Afro, a nightclub plays “Sing a Simple Song”). The new context allows Mayfield’s songs, which have had their lusciousness removed (who corrects Curtis Mayfield?), sound a tad more apt. Salim Akil directed “Sparkle” from a script credited to his wife, Mara Brock Akil, and Howard Rosenman, who co-wrote the original script, and by the second half it’s a different movie. It’s “Dreamgirls.”
Technically, Akil’s is the better movie than O’Steen’s. You can see the actors’ faces, and the crew knows how to light every hue of brown skin. But there’s little in this new version as strange, druggy, sad, doomed, and vividly carnal as Lonette McKee’s performance. The English actress Carmen Ejogo is Sister now, and part of the trouble with this film is that you still don’t know what it’s about. McKee gave it psychology and humanness. Every emotion was utterly natural, transparent. There was no technique. Every time Ejogo swings her hips or goes on a bender, technique is all you feel. This woman is acting! And she’s doing so in a different movie.
The rest of “Sparkle” is speaker’s day stuff, in which, our putative star, who’s now played by Jordin Sparks, Follows Her Dreams and Stands Up for Herself and Gets What She Wants. Her ascent from pretty church mouse to Alicia Keys doing Carole King is less than convincing. But in the same way Ejogo, who’s fair-skinned and does lots of performing with her hair, seems meant to remind you more of Beyoncé than Diana Ross, Sparks’s casting seems meant to give the movie some contemporariness. Sparks won “American Idol” five years ago. Maybe the movie is about that.
Ha ha ha.
“Sparkle” isn’t about Jordin Sparks or Carmen Ejogo, especially when either of them sings. “Sparkle” is about its actual star, the woman most people who’ll line up for this movie will have come to see. It’s about Whitney Houston, who died in February, plays the girls’ churchy, overbearing mother, and dominates the movie without working half as hard as Derek Luke, Mike Epps, Omari Hardwick, or the wonderful Tika Sumpter, who plays the other, other sister.
Houston didn’t make many films — this was only her fourth — and she wasn’t a natural actor.
She spoke too fast, emoted too little, and seemed intimidated by the demands of being larger than life when she couldn’t rely on her voice. This is the first time her singing feels like an afterthought. With her in this part, as a woman who once lived hard and is trying to prevent her daughters from being chewed up and spit out by the music business, Houston embodies powerful, cautionary wisdom.
In her fuller carriage and in the cadences of the rasp her voice had acquired, you can see and hear a life lived. We didn’t need to see her perform in “Sparkle.” She walks and sits in this movie like a woman who’s already sung. Yet once Houston stands at the front of a church and mellifluously wraps that rasp around “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” the movie is effectively over. The camera frames her looking heavenward and hopping up and down. What we’re seeing is something holy. This woman is singing to us and to God. She’s also singing to herself.Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @wesley_morris.