Sparkle was a 1976 musical starring Irene Cara, Lonette McKee and Dwan Smith as a trio of singing sisters determined to make it in the record business. It was a murky, gritty, stiff melodrama though fondly remembered, mostly for its Curtis Mayfield music and a soundtrack album that featured Aretha Franklin covering all the songs. If you know and love that stuff today (En Vogue did and had a big hit with the movie's "Giving Him Something He Can Feel" in the 1990s) it's because Franklin's versions tower over the film performances by otherwise perfectly good singers Cara and McKee.
This remake stands in the shadow of another legendary singer, the late Whitney Houston, whose last musical performance is featured close to the end of the film, a soul-saddening take on the gospel standard "His Eye Is on the Sparrow." But even more sorrowful than that final song is Houston's role in the action as a career-ruined music industry veteran, now stern working mother, raising singing daughters Tika Sumpter, Carmen Ejogo and (American Idol winner) Jordin Sparks. Probably meant to be only somewhat ironic at the time of shooting, dialogue like "Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?" now feels crushing to hear from the deceased star. Taken as a whole, it's almost too much weight for the movie to bear.
So the question becomes one of how much you can deal with. And if you're made of Teflon you'll get a shiny late 1960s Detroit where riots are mentioned but not shown, Mike Epps as a dangerously racist white-audience-approved stand-up comic and some stunning dress-up sequences with matching wig extravagance. Which leaves the only other stumbling block: Sparks as the title character. She can walk and talk at the same time and doesn't embarrass herself as an actress, and the rest of the talented cast gives her generous support, including Derek Luke and a brazenly scene-stealing Tika Sumpter who's got hard sass down so cold she could trademark her own brand of it. But Sparks, now in her early 20s, still comes off like the same teenage prodigy she was on American Idol, technically proficient at hitting a lot of notes but disconnected from anything resembling passion or pain. She'll get there one of these days but it hasn't happened yet.
Not helping at all are the unusually generic Personal Destiny Fulfillment songs written by R. Kelly to supplement the original Curtis Mayfield tracks, especially the climactic "One Wing." As in "I can't fly with one wing." As in here comes a gospel choir from American Idol's finale to back up Sparks up, framing her exactly as she was when you last paid attention to her. As in exactly the same damn song as her first Idol-sponsored single, "This Is My Now." Remember that one? No? You're lucky. And maybe this will all feel brand new.