"Sparkle" is like a box of July Fourth sparklers. It sizzles briefly whenever people open their mouths to sing, flames out, then flashes to life again when someone lights another musical sparkler.
In between, when people open their mouths to talk, the characters mostly are like burned-out sparklers - stiff, inert, disposable metal sticks.
Not really the way we'd like to remember Whitney Houston or welcome a gifted singer such as Jordin Sparks to the big-screen. But the main attraction of "Sparkle" is the glitter and glamour, and in that it delivers, compensating somewhat for the bad melodrama and bad acting in a bad story of a Supremes-style sister act on the late 1960s Motown scene.
A remake of the 1976 movie, "Sparkle" was a passion project for Houston, also an executive producer on the production. Her death on the eve of the Grammys in February turned the movie into a memorial of sorts, but her performance as a disapproving mom is slight, while the one solo number she sings is blah, a sad reminder of another glorious voice gone gruff with time and hard living.
In the title role, "American Idol" winner Sparks has an innocence and earnestness, wide eyes filled with hope and decency, a blazing smile, that beautiful singing voice. And then she has to go and talk, in flat, breathless tones, infusing Sparkle with all the conviction of a drama club diva with her first lead in a school play.
Sparks is surrounded by veteran actors who, while not at their best, at least know how to mug their way through a lurid story filled with silly people and preposterous turns. While constantly upstaged by her co-stars, Sparks also gets shafted by the action itself as director Salim Akil ("Jumping the Broom") and his wife, screenwriter Mara Brock Akil, leave her on the sidelines, a big-hearted wallflower watching everyone else have fun and do the heavy lifting.
So you have a movie called "Sparkle," about an aspiring singer and songwriter named Sparkle, who is background noise to her own story.
Sparkle's the youngest of three sisters raised by stern, religious Detroit businesswoman Emma (Houston), who had a taste of musical success in her youth, got burned badly, and now wants nothing but the straight-and-narrow for her girls.
Eldest sibling Tammy (Carmen Ejogo), who goes by the name Sister, is the wild child - drop-dead gorgeous and desperate to break out of the confines of Emma's world. With a magnificent voice and spicy stage presence, Sister's a born star as she takes the lead in a threesome backed by Sparkle and middle sibling Dolores (Tika Sumpter).
Aided by their manager, Sparkle's new boyfriend Stix (Derek Luke), the trio leaps to local stardom and the prospects of a record deal, powered by Sister's voice and showmanship and Sparkle's provocative pop songs.
The musical numbers are slinky and sexy, highlighted by Curtis Mayfield classics and some catchy tunes written by R. Kelly, with Ejogo, Sparks and Sumpter dazzling in racy outfits from costume designer Ruth E. Carter.
"Sparkle" really is Sister and Emma's story more than anything as Houston preaches against worldly temptations and Ejogo grasps for them, anyway.
Luke is sturdy but boring, as is Omari Hardwick as Stix's cousin, Levi, a decent guy who falls madly for Sister. Mike Epps is stuck in a flash role as stand-up comedy star Satin, who sweeps Sister away swooning but devolves instantly into the bad wolf certain to become her downfall.
Ejogo steals the show, getting the best songs to sing and the best lines to shout as the melodrama turns shrill. Even as the action becomes tawdry and laughable, Ejogo keeps Sister grounded, a watchable if not altogether believable woman seduced by success.
Sumpter manages sass and strength as the smart, sensible sister, leaving Sparks playing third fiddle in her own movie. Her romance is uninteresting and her issues with mom are uninvolved compared to Sister's, while the filmmakers rein in Sparks musically until the very end. When she finally gets to center stage, it's a doozy of a production number - a great music video but an abrupt transition from quiet church mouse to self-possessed superstar that's way over the top in context of the story.
Houston sort of speed-mumbles her way through much of her dialogue, and though we're told she's a loving parent, she plays Emma mostly as a mean, bitter, suspicious mom.
There is a chilling moment, though, as Emma asks, "Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale?"
If Houston were still alive, the line would resonate, given her drug problems, her tumultuous personal life, her diminished voice. With Houston gone, the line becomes a sad epitaph for a life gone wrong, a talent wasted.
"Sparkle," released by Sony's TriStar Pictures, is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving domestic abuse and drug material, and for some violence, language and smoking. Running time: 116 minutes. Two stars out of four.