Whitney Houston should have been a movie star, not just a star in movies. The difference is consistency, because Houston 20 years ago had no problem lighting up the screen. We should have seen it more than three times but something tragically selfish always got in her way.
It would have been fascinating to observe the coltish ingenue of The Bodyguard mature into the surprisingly thoughtful actor at work in Sparkle.
Houston's final performance, completed shortly before her death in February, is relatively minor yet delivered with last-chance passion and a bracing lack of ego. She appears weary, not in good health, which works for the role. Hindsight lends several of Houston's line readings — and a church-shaking rendition of His Eye Is on the Sparrow — more depth after her death.
Sparkle was intended as Houston's Hollywood comeback, remaking a 1976 blaxploitation flick that borrowed heavily from decades of show biz melodramas starring whites. Director Salim Akil (Jumping the Broom) and screenwriter Mara Brock Akil don't offer any new ideas, but the sameness is stylishly presented. Sparkle is a series of soul-stirring Motown-style musical numbers constantly interrupted by cliche.
Houston plays Emma Anderson, who made her share of mistakes in men and vices, and is Bible-thumping determined her three daughters won't. They're already straying from the flock, enticed by Detroit's nightclub scene in 1968, when R&B, funk and soul are converging. The eldest daughter, Sister (an impressive Carmen Ejogo), is a talented singer, hoping to get a break. Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) writes the songs. Delores (Tika Sumpter) handles backing vocals, choreography and general advice.
Sister catches the eye of sell-out comedian Satin Struthers (Mike Epps), who marries her to Emma's dismay then proceeds to get Sister hooked on cocaine, eventually leading to domestic abuse. Sparkle should really be titled Sister since this ill-fated relationship steers the movie. Any resemblance to Houston's marriage to Bobby Brown is purely coincidental and unavoidable.
Sparkle has a sweeter romance brewing with Stix (Derek Luke), who recognizes her songwriting talent and urges her to follow that dream. Sparks is a dynamic singer, although like many of the musical numbers, her style is more 21st century American Idol on Alicia Keys week than 1968's top-40 radio. Sparks acquits herself well in her acting debut but isn't particularly challenged.
The screenplay is a mess, with abrupt changes of heart, leaden dialogue and characters like Cee Lo Green's soul singer Big Black, who are interesting then dropped. The music is terrific, from Green's scorching opener, I'm a Man, to Sparks' closer, One Wing, when the theater fairly rumbles with her voice. Ejogo is the only actor with chops matching her vocals, and will be interesting to see in a future, broader role.
Sparkle may wind up as Ejogo's breakthrough but will forever be remembered as Houston's swan song, and a glimpse of what her next life chapter might have been. What a talent. What a waste.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.