Set in Detroit in the 1960s, the film purportedly centers on its titular songstress (Sparks), the youngest of three sisters who start to ascend the musical ranks in the Motor City before their path to stardom hits a whole lot of rocky patches. Eldest sister Sister (Carmen Ejogo, who’s a revelation) is the gifted lead singer of the group, but her talent takes a hit when she falls for suave, asshatty comedian Satin Struthers (Mike Epps, in a change-of-pace villain role). Middle sister Delores (Tika Sumpter) is the responsible, level-headed one, with her sights set on medical school. And Sparkle? She’s shy and demure and the songwriter of the bunch. As the attempt to climb the fame ladder, the trio live under the strict rule of their jaded mother (Whitney Houston), who doesn’t want to see her daughters swallowed by the lurid world of the music industry.
Directed by Salim Akil (Jumping the Broom), the film feels sort of unmoored, making it difficult to discern how much time is passing and whether the order of events actually follows the arc of the story or are more the result of re-editing to give Houston more screen time. Either way, scenes seem to jump around in time – one moment, Sparkle is declaring her independence; then she’s on the couch in her mother’s house, watching TV; then she’s moving into an apartment. Likewise, by the end of the film, I didn’t know whether we’d just watched three years or three months in these women’s lives.
Thankfully, the film is saved by its strong musical numbers and surprisingly effective performances, especially those from standouts Ejogo and Epps. She is easily the fiercest, most compelling actress in the film, and her wounded, troubled Sister walks away with the whole movie. He’s never been more serious – or menacing – and his performance reveals more layers to his acting talent than one might have assumed after films like The Hangover and The Honeymooners.
Unfortunately, the same can not be said of the actresses who get top billing. Sparks, while fine, isn’t super-engaging, and she actually plays more of a second-fiddle supporting role to her flashier co-stars. Houston, meanwhile, looks like Whitney Houston acting – save for one moving scene in which she stands before her church congregation and sings, which had me totally teary by the last note.
Overall, Sparkle follows in the tradition of many a rags-to-riches stardom story and, while it doesn’t really break any new ground or turn the formula on its ear, it still manages to deliver an entertaining night out at the movies.