The road to fame and fortune is never an easy one, as told by the remake of the 1970s movie musical “Sparkle.” Although plenty of emphasis can be made on how writing/directing duo Mara Brock and Salim Akil adapted the classic tale for their retelling, i.e. choosing to set the film in 1968-era Detroit versus the 1950s Harlem setting of the original, most of the focus on the film has been on the fact that it is the last onscreen performance of the late, great Whitney Houston.
Critics haven’t been totally dazzled by the shine of “Sparkle,” given its barely passing grade over at Rotten Tomatoes, but let’s lift the curtain on the “Sparkle” reviews to take a closer look at the high and low notes, and everything in between:
The Updated Story
“The original 1976 version of ‘Sparkle’ transposed some older-than-vaudeville show-business clichés to the music world of the late ’50s and early ’60s in service of a story about three sisters trying to make it as a girl group while bumping up against crime, abuse and drug addiction. The script, co-written by Howard Rosenman and Joel Schumacher, left no familiar peril unexplored, but it was elevated by its vivid depiction of the New York music scene, plus a bunch of terrific songs written by Curtis Mayfield, and performed on its bestselling soundtrack album by Aretha Franklin. Though the 2012 remake, directed by Salim Akil, dials back some of the more sensationalistic elements, it doesn’t otherwise do much to improve on the source material. Moving the action to Detroit and the calendar up to 1968, a smart setting that catches soul music at a crossroads, it features impressive period detail and some terrific music, adding a handful of new R. Kelly songs to the Mayfield numbers. But the stuff that takes place between music numbers in that lovingly realized re-creation of late-’60s Detroit hasn’t defrosted too well.” — Keith Phipps, The AV Club
The Whitney Houston Factor
“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, The Boston Globe
“The film is meant to be a showcase for Sparks. But while she is a sweet presence, she isn’t a natural actress. She lacks the vulnerability of Irene Cara, the original Sparkle, and doesn’t seem fully comfortable until the soaring finale, when she’s allowed to tap into her true gift: her voice. Ejogo is the real heartbreaker as Sister, adding affecting delicacy to a role that could so easily have become an overblown cliché. She’s been working solidly for years, and will soon be seen as Tyler Perry’s wife in ‘Alex Cross.’ But she deserves more than supporting roles. It would be only fitting if this film helped make her the leading lady she ought to be. Both onscreen and off, ‘Sparkle’ is a story about beginnings and endings. Akil, who also made the appealing ‘Jumping the Broom,’ understands the poignancy of these themes. So come to see Sparks, pay tribute to Houston and celebrate the star-making performance that Ejogo delivers.” — Elizabeth Weitzman, The Daily News
The Final Word
“The trouble with ‘Sparkle’ isn’t that it’s overwrought (that’s what’s sometimes fun about it). It’s that everything in the movie is derivative and third-hand: a copy of a copy. The film is pulp that’s been fed through a strainer, with bits and pieces squeezed out of a dozen other, better movies (‘What’s Love Got to Do With It,’ ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ and ‘Dreamgirls,’ to name just a few). At times, it’s like a Joan Crawford neurotic-mother fantasy, and the gravelly conviction of Whitney Houston’s performance proves that this could have been the first step not merely in a comeback but in a major reinvention. She had the instincts of a superb character actress.” — Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
Check out everything we’ve got on “Sparkle.”
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