Last Updated on Thursday, 16 August 2012 17:52 Posted by Clash Friday, 17 August 2012 01:04
Film And DVD Reviews by Phil Boatwright
Whitney Houston, Jordin Sparks. TriStar Pictures. Written by Mara Brock Akil. Directed by Salim Akil. 8/17/12
FILM SYNOPSIS: Jordin Sparks has the lead role in this remake of the 1976 musical drama about a singer and her two sisters striving to become a dynamic singing group during the Motown-era. Whitney Houston plays their mother and also served as the film’s producer. Ms. Houston died three months after the filming completed.
REVIEW: This kid-wants-to-be-a-star-but-parent-says-nay theme has become a genre unto itself. They’re like sports movies, not just with a beginning, middle and end, but with a step-by-step playbook that seldom strays from ordinary into the realm of uniqueness. Some of these formulaic films shine despite their limitations, some don’t. The latest entry, Sparkle, does and it doesn’t. But despite its flaws, and we will discuss those, I enjoyed the film and seeing Whitney Houston one last time.
Jordin Sparks, who won American Idol in 2002, is a novice actress given a major role before her time. Like Jennifer Hudson (also an American Idol contestant and Oscar winner for her debut movie Dreamgirls), Ms Sparks, while showing some signs of ability, has little flint in her screen persona. She’s more a diamond in the rough. As I say, there’s ability there, but as much as we would hope that winning a talent test on TV would guarantee superstardom, that magic doesn’t always transfer to the big screen. She’s not without charm; she’s just not as memorable as say Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl.
Though Ms. Sparks has the musical chops, she is not yet seasoned enough dramatically to carry such an important role. What’s more, being able to vocalize with the earsplitting volume of Tarzan doesn’t make you a great singer. Now, I am in the minority on this point, as this generation seems to be enthralled by singers who highlight each number with a yodel-like vibrato in place of tonal texture and phrasing. Very few singers today are able to color a note. They just blast it. Of course, if I were able to convince under-thirties to listen to Streisand sing A Piece of Sky from Yentl or Ella Fitzgerald sing anything, the performances would probably go unappreciated. Styles and sensibilities change. To each his own. But dramatically, I stand by my assertion. Ms. Sparks doesn’t have the dramatic skills to bring a spark to her Sparkle.
As for Whitney Houston, I grant you she had something that caught the interest of pop lovers of the ‘80s, but no one did yodel-like vibrato as much as she did. If that’s your taste. I didn’t like it when Johnny Weissmuller did it, and I didn’t like it when Whitney did it. As for her movie roles, with exceptions (My Bodyguard), she was a one note actress. But there is no denying, she was beautiful and charismatic in front of the movie camera. And in this, her last role, she still has a screen presence that’s hard to ignore.
My major problem with Sparkle isn’t the acting, but rather the script. It must be difficult to bring something edgy, emotional and new to a retelling of this familiar plotline. Perhaps that’s why we shouldn’t write off older films such as Funny Girl or Tender Mercies just because they show signs of age. Sparkle’s storyline seems so constructed by the numbers that it lacks any freshness. True, the problems the characters undergo happen over and over in true life. Still, it seems unnecessary to keep making this film over and over when it has already been done so well in past film efforts.
Sparkle also lacks that one nameless dynamic found in Funny Girl, or even Chicago. While there are several nice moments in the film, the ever present emotional tug of the plot never seems to effectively reach the viewer. At least, not this viewer.
Then there’s the religious aspect. While Christ and the church are not disrespected, it is once again a movie’s most religious character that has to learn forgiveness. That’s generally true, as we Christians are often guilty of a more comfortable understanding of religious law than God’s grace. But what does this myopic view of the Christian walk say to the un-churched? When spiritual matters in a film are presented with a heavy hand (Easy A), rather than with compassion (Places in the Heart), the secular community often gets a biased and one-dimensional view of people of faith. That was my problem with this picture. The pastor and his flock seemed a bit cartoonish. In an effort to make the pastor interesting, he merely came across as a caricature.
The filmmaker relies on two antagonists to fuel the narrative; the mother for her strictness, and a male self-promoter for his dastardly deeds (he uses and abuses people, then, after consuming drugs, becomes physically abusive to the very woman he purportedly loves). A lack of cinematic finesse when dealing with the antagonists can leave the production boorish. Such is the case with Sparkle.
All that said, and there are other film infractions, still, I found it an enjoyable movie-going experience. The three sisters are likable and fully realized, and both Mike Epps as the bad guy and Derek Luke as the good guy handle their parts with aplomb. The score is terrific and, with an exception of the busy hand-held camera (evidently like sound and color, the shaky hand-held camera is here to stay), the production values are top drawer.
Here’s my favorite moment. Whitney sings “His Eye is On the Sparrow.” Though I said I’m not a big fan of her music, I must admit this was the highlight of the film. The song, and that screen moment, pay tribute to God’s love and His omnipresence. In Hebrews 13: 5, it says, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” The song makes that statement. At some point Whitney Houston’s character (and I believe and pray Ms. Houston did, as well) was reminded of that promise and eventually embraced it.
PG-13 (one crude sexual reference; disrespect shown toward a pastor; a few minor expletives; three profane uses of God’s name as a frustrated woman beats on the chest of her abusive husband; a man is abusive towards his woman; we see evidence of his abuse and then we see him beat her with a belt and hit her sister; a man is hit with a fire poker and killed; while there are no graphic sex scenes, there is quite a bit of sensuality as the women perform their songs; a woman is living with a man and though she was brought up in the church, she lives with him outside marriage; There is some drug use as one sister and her man get hooked on cocaine, but it can be seen as cautionary, as the two lives and careers are adversely affected by its use; some drinking and smoking).
A Star Is Born
Funny Girl (forget Funny Woman, because even though Streisand is, Woman isn’t)
Phil Boatwright celebrates 25 years of writing about Hollywood from a Christian perspective. Besides providing a monthly column for Baptist Press, he reviews films for www.previewonline.org. He also is a regular contributor to "The World and Everything In it," a weekly radio program from WORLD News Group, which also publishes WORLD Magazine.
For information about Phil Boatwright, go to moviereporter.com.
Profanity – God’s name followed by a curse or the abusive use of Christ’s name
Obscenity – a swear word, indecent language
Expletive – minor curse words such as damn or hell
Crudity – vulgar, often coarse situations or dialogue dealing with bodily functions
Adult Subject Matter – situations or subjects unsuitable for or difficult to comprehend by children