Film review: Sparkle

‘WAS my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?” demands Whit­ney Houston in one of the ­eerily prescient lines from this Star Is Born rehash. Originally intended as a pop-infused melodrama about an industry which eats young talent for breakfast, lunch and pre-show canapés, unexpectedly Sparkle became an elegy for Houston when she died suddenly in February during post-production, after a series of public battles with drugs and other demons.

Sparkle (12A)

Director: Salim Akil

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Running time: 116 minutes

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In her final film, Houston plays the churchgoing mother of three daughters, who strenuously objects to them carving a career in the music business. Consequently, in order to perform around Detroit clubs as a Supremes-style girl group, they are forced to sneak out of her house at night when mom is asleep, even though all of them are over 18.

American Idol winner ­Jordin Sparks plays Sparkle, the group’s songwriter, who fills notebooks with songs she doesn’t have the courage to sing, while middle sister ­Dolores (Tika Sumpter) is the brains of the outfit, who pragmatically views the group as a means to pay her way through medical school. And their eye-catching lead is Sister (Carmen Ejogo), a sultry material girl – at least until she makes the huge mistake of hitching her wagon to a self-loathing ­comedian (Mike Epps), who ­introduces her to cocaine and regular beatings.

It’s been years since I saw the original Sparkle, co-written by Batman Forever’s Joel Schumacher and co-starring Irene Cara, and my most abiding memory is that the older film was so badly lit that you sometimes had to wait for the dialogue to detect whether a character was laughing or crying. The new version by Salim Akil updates the action from 1958 to 1968 to take in more civil rights activism, feminism and soul music, but wisely retains the authentic ghetto pain of Curtis Mayfield’s numbers from the first film. Less wisely, it tops up the soundtrack with new material by R Kelly, whose songs sound as out of kilter with the era as a Rihanna hairweave.

Sparkle’s drama is predestined and overripe, with backstage homilies so loud and clear they could be sold as ringtones. But if you are in the mood for unrestrained, sudsy melodrama then you might as well lather up here. It also makes a decent attempt to show how music can turn up the volume on real life; ­particularly good is a sequence where the camera trails past listening booths in a record store, each occupant wrapped up in private bliss.

In the end, however, two performances lend Sparkle some lustre. One is the British actress Ejogo, whose ­dynamically self-destructive Sister is the real rudder of the movie, even if it does carry the name of her wan songsmith ­sibling. Sparks can sing in an oversouled way, but she struggles to summon up moxy when the music shuts up. Ejogo, ­however, has the sizzle of a ­Beyoncé.

The other draw is Houston, although Sparkle is not a high note for her: she looks bloated and her voice is so coarsened that when she tackles the gospel His Eye Is On the Sparrow, it struggles to take flight. Yet in a film about wasted talent, her appearance is almost as poignant as Judy Garland’s I Could Go On Singing. Houston was once the real deal; didn’t she almost have it all? «

On general release from Friday