Why, why, why do women in musical girl groups ever try to find love? Haven't they seen the other movies? Don't they know that men will be their downfall? The Anderson sisters—Tammy (known as Sister, played by Carmen Ejogo), Dee (Tika Sumpter), and Sparkle (Jordin Sparks)—apparently haven't been warned. So we watch the familiar unraveling, shaking our heads at the screen over all the lost potential, all the unnecessary carnage. (Oh c'mon, as if that's any kind of spoiler).

It's 1968 Detroit, and we open with two young African American women in a nightclub. One, dressed in a sexy silver dress, is getting ready to perform, and the other, dressed in a demure sweater and skirt, is begging her not to back out. Sister does take the stage and belt out a vampy song, much to the delight of the men in the audience and the joy of her sister, Sparkle, who wrote it (well, thanks to Curtis Mayfield). Five minutes later the sisters are on a bus home, hoping to sneak in before their overprotective mom wakes up and realizes they've been gone.

Whitney Houston as Emma

Whitney Houston as Emma

So much of what's right and wrong with Sparkle is packed in those opening scenes. The great music and performance. The great costuming and late-60s nightclub vibe. But also the stereotyped characters and well-worn plotlines.

In fact, this isn't the first time Sparkle has hit the big screen. The original 1976 movie was set in 1950s Harlem and starred Irene Cara as Sparkle and Philip Michael Thomas as her boyfriend/manager Stix. Deborah Martin Chase, who produced this new version, had been working with Whitney Houston (Sparkle executive producer and a co-star here) for over a decade to remake the film, and, sadly, it wound up being Houston's final project.

Houston plays the sisters' mom, Emma, a washed-up singer turned good church-going woman who wants more for her three daughters. And that more involves anything but following in her footsteps into the music industry.

But Sparkle has a dream. And a gift for songwriting. And a new boyfriend, Stix (Derek Luke), who wants to be the next Berry Gordy (founder of Motown Records) and sees great potential in Sparkle's songs. Because she's not confident enough to command the stage on her own, Sparkle begs her sisters to join her and form a girl group, all the rage at that time. Sister, home from a failed marriage and desperate to make enough money to move out, is in. Dee, biding her time until medical school, figures why not. The group is set and Stix goes about getting them gigs, and the requisite fabulous coordinating dresses.

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But trouble brews when Sister makes an unfortunate choice in men (mm-hmm), when that relationship goes from bad to worse (yep, saw that coming), when Mom catches wind of what her girls have been up to. Everyone has to face their demons, and stop to sing a few songs along the way.

Jordin Sparks as Sparkle

Jordin Sparks as Sparkle

All of this would work if the characters weren't so thinly and familiarly drawn. Sister is the Sexpot, who keeps making stupid choices in men to try to attain the lavish lifestyle she wants. Dee is the Brain, the strong, goal-oriented, verbal brawn of the bunch. Sparkle is the Church Mouse, who wants to please and doesn't have the ambition to match her talent. How these three grew up in the same family is rather remarkable (read: implausible). Their mom, Emma, is the Bitter Woman. Scorned by men (see?!) and the music industry, she hides her angst and fear behind her fervent religious practice.

The singing and performances are great, the acting less so. Jordin Sparks is not going to pull a Jennifer Hudson with this performance (Hudson won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 2007's Dreamgirls). At times she seems up to the task, but in other key moments she's emotionless and a little lost. Ejogo is a bit overdramatic as Sister. Sumpter, with the least screen time, is the best of the three. While it's good and a bit haunting to see Houston here, she seems tired throughout the film. Her acting is decent, and her performance of "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" late in the film is riveting.

Derek Luke as Stix, here with Sparkle

Derek Luke as Stix, here with Sparkle

The male characters fare much better both in how they're written and acted. Derek Luke is earnest, believable, and enjoyable to watch. And we feel Omari Hardwick's lovesick frustration as Levi, who tries to woo Sister despite his modest means.

Religion plays an interesting role in Sparkle. Emma wields her faith almost like a weapon. She lets the youth of her church watch an hour of her color television in exchange for some Bible study time. Having a relationship with the Lord is one of the three things she requests of her daughters (along with respect and value upon education). And yet that anger of hers lingers, the hardness of unresolved pain and unforgiveness. She's a flawed woman of faith, which is both uncomfortable and one of the more realistic elements to the film.

You can tell that Sparkle really wants to shine. Too bad it's tarnished by stereotypical characters and overdramatic scenes. And men!

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Why do you think Sparkle lacks the confidence to sing her own songs? How does she eventually gain that confidence?
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  1. In a later scene Sparkle asks her mom why God would give her her talent if he didn't want her to use it. What do you think of that reasoning? Have you ever felt similarly conflicted about a way you're gifted?
  2. Satin's humor plays well to white audiences but not to blacks. What does this say about the nature of humor? Do you think Satin was a sellout or a pioneer?
  3. Do you think Sister's decision to take the fall for her sisters was wise or foolish? What do you think about the punishment for that crime? Should it even have been considered a crime?
  4. In what ways is Emma a good mom and in what ways is she lacking?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Sparkle is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving domestic abuse and drug material, and for some violence, language, and smoking. We see a lot of vamping on stage whenever Sister sings, and we see a lot of flesh in a few of the more revealing outfits. Though there's domestic abuse and drug use, we certainly see the consequences of those bad decisions. Sparkle remains a pretty clean character throughout, and is a pretty decent role model for young viewers. (Note: Jordin Sparks, who plays Sparkle, is a devout Christian.) She would provide a good compare and contrast conversation in regards to the other characters with your kids after the film.

Our Rating
2 Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(2 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for mature thematic content involving domestic abuse and drug material, and for some violence, language and smoking)
Directed By
Salim Akil
Run Time
1 hour 56 minutes
Jordin Sparks, Carmen Ejogo, Whitney Houston
Theatre Release
August 17, 2012 by Sony Pictures
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