Sparkle was posthumously dedicated to your memory, but it was also very much created with your presence. As a co-star and producer of the film, the production has unintentionally become your swan song and, in some ways, feels like an appropriate conclusion to your uneven legacy. This film may never reach your signature high notes, but even when it devolves into cliches of drug addictions and abusive husbands, it usually manages to do one thing right - entertain.
Despite being a remake of the 1976 film, the title seems designed to shine a light on American idol winner Jordin Sparks, playing Sparkle, but until the third act, the story is equally focused on her oldest sister named… Sister (Carmen Ejogo). This type of on-the-nose naming makes _Sparkle _feel like it was written by a fourth grader, which might be why it seemed hard for you, playing the girls' tough-love mother, to scold them with a straight face. Despite your character's disapproval, they, along with middle sister Dolores, secretly form an all-girl group in 1968 Motown Detroit. Your stance is supposedly informed by actual experience, since your character once tried to go down the same road.
As an audience member, it's easy for us to believe that background - you're Whitney Houston! It does, however, seem highly unlikely for a black woman who would have grown up in 1940s America. But your real-life legacy does some heavy lifting against our potential disbelief. On the other hand, our knowledge of your accomplishments as a performer sets up other heightened expectations for a break-out song that, once it arrives, is underwhelming. Backed by a full gospel choir, and positioned at what should be the right dramatic moment, your song "His Eye is on the Sparrow" lacks emotional thunder and resonance of your best ballads. The free-styling jazz piano overwhelms the melody and distracts us from feeling the necessary impact of a family falling apart.
Not getting enough of what we crave hampers much of the film. Cee Lo Green is the first face we see, playing a rising singer on the scene named Black. Unfortunately, that's the only time we see him, and although his song "I'm a Man" chugs along with an upbeat pace, it has no connection to the larger story that focuses on women. At least Carmen Ejogo sizzles in her stage performances as Sister and is given some seductive lounge material to work with. But it isn't until the final stage performance that Sparkle herself gets a chance to shine, at which point it feels like she's hijacked the finale more than earned her moment in the spotlight. Your face here is flush with pride, and once again the line between character and reality feels blurred as both sides of you seem to itch for a return to glory.
Setting the story on the eve of Martin Luther King's assassination is another missed opportunity, since the political climate is acknowledged, but never embraced. Sparkle herself is constantly encouraged to write more substantial material, but instead she sticks to fluff and only watches experiences around her instead of actually suffering herself. This is one major element in the script you surely could have called out with authority and demanded some authenticity.
Instead, the film plays it safe, both in story and song, which makes it enjoyable in the moment, but most likely forgettable. And the last thing any of us want to be is forgettable.
In your memory,