1976’s “Sparkle” was a proto-“Dreamgirls,” the tale of three Harlem sisters weathering the rise and fall of their musical career as a doo-wop group in 1958. Working from his wife’s screenplay, director Salim Akil (“Jumping the Broom”) ages the girls up a bit, moves them up a decade to 1968 Detroit, and updates a couple of Curtis Mayfield’s original songs while adding a handful of new Motown-worthy ditties written by R. Kelly. Generally speaking, they have improved on the source material as much as possible while still succumbing to some of the same hoary showbiz beats.
Sparkle (Jordin Sparks of “American Idol” fame) is a mostly meek songwriter who’s perfectly happy to see older sibling Sister (Carmen Ejogo) belt out her ballads to a paying audience. Together, they catch the eye of would-be promoter Stix (Derek Luke), and with his encouragement and the support of middle sister Dolores (Tika Sumpter), they form a musical trio unbeknownst to their strict mother (Whitney Houston in her final film performance).
Alas, temptation must arise and does in the form of stand-up comedian/sugar daddy Satin (Mike Epps), bringing drugs, abuse and all-around woe into the picture. Epps, like the film itself, is effective if never subtle at straddling the line between wide-grinning charms and hardly hidden insecurities. Until Satin arrives, and even for a while after he does, Akil’s remake is a warmer, snappier affair that treats the politics of the time period matter-of-factly. Integration gets mentioned as an off-handed joke, people discuss riots more than they dodge them and the face of Martin Luther King, Jr. commonly shows up on any given television, but the film never proceeds to take on more social issues than it can handle.
Class struggles and family dilemmas are fodder enough for the plot, and although no life lesson here comes as a surprise, the bond between Sparks, Ejogo and Sumpter is a convincing one, and until the requisite Big Moment where she sings in church, Houston managed to be an amusingly concerned mother hen before the intentional parallels to her own off-screen career come to light. Of course, lines like “Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?” can’t escape a darker resonance following her passing earlier this year, making a somewhat maudlin film seem that much more emotional.
The Akils substituted a new audience-baiting climax for a death by overdose in the original film, instead sending that character off to prison and unwittingly avoiding further comparison to Houston’s own life while making room for additional redemption on her character’s part. The third act’s no less rags-to-riches routine than what precedes it, but before the backstage melodrama begins to dominate, it’s charming to see Stix finance his new endeavor through pool hall hustling, or to see doodles of Sparkle’s name on a marquee in the margins of her own songbook. These touches make the familiar go down that much smoother, and goodness knows that these girls can in fact sing their hearts out once they take the stage.
When Sparkle eventually makes the case to a recording exec for just how many hits she can milk each of her life’s hardships for, it feels like the passive admission on part of the filmmakers that they retain certain clichés much as one covers old standards. This particular cover works best when it hits a few new notes along its well-worn way to stardom.