Sparkle: Whitney Houston brings sad irony to affecting musical remake 

Just like the 1976 original, Salim Akil's well-acted remake of Sparkle ably blends inspirational themes, memorable music and explosive melodrama. With megachurch minister Rev. T.D. Jakes part of the executive-producing corps, it's no surprise that Mara Brock Akil and Howard Rosenbaum's story has a predictable outcome, cautionary morals and stark heroes and villains. A few things have been changed, notably moving the story from New York to Detroit and making the mother (Whitney Houston, in her final role) less vindictive than overprotective, unlike her predecessor (Mary Alice).

But at heart Sparkle remains a familiar tale about hopes, dreams, failure, and ultimately redemption and triumph. Three talented sisters envision music as their pathway to stardom, despite the perennial warnings and dismissive attitude of their mother Emma (Houston, whose casting floods the role with sad irony). Emma once had everything: looks, a great voice, a seemingly can't-miss future. Then she got pregnant and wrecked her chances, and she's determined that her daughters not repeat her mistakes.

Only Sparkle (American Idol champion Jordin Sparks, making her acting debut) has those same gifts, and refuses to abandon the quest for musical glory. With siblings Delores (Tika Sumpter) and Sister (the dynamic Carmen Ejogo), the trio soon discovers they've got the basic skills that could take them a long way. Fellow songwriter Stix (Derek Luke) soon realizes the sisters, especially Sparkle, have something special. He abandons his own career to become their manager, while also seeking to convince Sparkle to marry him as well.

In classic backstage-melodrama tradition, however, things get complicated quickly. Sister muddies the waters by getting involved with lowlife comic Satin (Mike Epps, in a knockout performance). Satin makes his money being a buffoon for upscale white audiences in high-end nightclubs, something that has intensified and expanded his self-hatred — as well as a loathing for his own people which doesn't come out until he has convinced Sister to marry him. His abuse, combined with rampant drug use, doesn't just jeopardize the sisters' professional future; it threatens their personal lives as well.

Because this is prototypical soap opera, audiences will know the outcome long before the gala ending. But Sparkle has soap's strengths as well, among them bold conflicts, dramatic momentum and vividly defined characters acted to the hilt by performers with something to prove. Despite the nuggets of theological wisdom scattered throughout, director Akil wisely never lets the movie bog down in religious polemic. The sisters register as genuine human beings rather than symbolic props, each with plausible neuroses and problems. Despite her beauty and talent, Sparkle is painfully insecure; Delores would rather be an intellectual than a performer; and Sister doesn't understand the difference between lasting intimacy and short-term pleasure.

As with the original, though, the new Sparkle's winning virtue is its music. Rather than go head-to-head with Curtis Mayfield's epic soundtrack, the remake intersperses his evergreen songs — including a wonderful update of the torchy "Something He Can Feel" — with new material and classics outside the original's score. Among these is Houston's riveting version of "His Eye Is On The Sparrow," a spectacular number that comes close to the gems she used to routinely drop during her glory days. Her performance is haunted by our awareness of her offscreen troubles and tragic end. I prefer to chalk it up to acting that her mannerisms and sensibility perfectly communicate the essence of a woman defeated by life.

For someone who loved the original and saw no reason for a remake, this updated Sparkle is far better than anticipated. I'm not sure whether Jordin Sparks has any real acting future, but she sings here with power and majesty. The real revelations are Ejogo and Epps, whose joint descent into self-destruction provides the film's darkest and most indelible sequences. Slightly overlong at two hours, the new Sparkle is more an affecting reworking of worn elements than something strikingly new. But its music and performers gleam with conviction.

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