I must admit that I am a die-hard, why fix what ain’t broke, fan of the film Sparkle that premiered in 1976. I could probably never accept anything other than the original. Therefore, the remake released in 2012 was probably doomed from the start which is why I waited until February 2013 to watch it on DVD. Although it did my heart good to see the last on screen performance of the incomparable Whitney Houston, even one of the greatest voices of all times could not save this picture in my eyes. Sparkle (1976) tells the story of four sisters or better known as Sister & the Sisters rise to fame in the late 1950’s, early 1960’s Harlem. Along the way, Sister, played by Lonette McKee, gets involved in a relationship with a hustler and consequently becomes a drug addict.This later leads to her death. Also, a relationship forms between Sparkle, a role made famous by Irene Cara, and Stix, played by Philip Michael Thomas. It is Stix’s dream to break out into the music business and he sees the girls as his and their opportunity. But when things falls short with Sister, he decides to leave and go to work in construction ending his relationship with Sparkle. When Sister passes away, Stix comes to the funeral, urging Sparkle to sing. Hesitant at first, and lost from the death of her older sister and hero, Sparkle is pushed to find her own life, especially by her mother Effie, played by Mary Alice, a maid who has cleaned homes of whites most of her life. Sparkle does decide to sing as a solo artist under the direction, dedication, and love of Stix who even when with a gun to his face (from Mafia he borrows money from) will not let anyone deter Sparkle from her dream.
Sparkle (2012) starring Whitney Houston as Effie, Jordin Sparks as Sparkle, Derek Luke as Levi, and Carmen Ejogo as Sister is a far departure from the original film. This film, although still about the rise to fame of Sister & her Sisters in the 1960s, takes place this time in Detroit, home of the Motown sound. The film is more about Sparkle’s dreams and aspirations to be a famous singer but under the thumb of her own insecurities and her overbearing Christian mother. Therefore, the story very much becomes also about Sparkle’s quest to sing secular music while maintaining her pure virgin image. Younger audiences might go for this version of Sparkle more as it comes with stepped up vocals of the original songs, sexier costumes, and [*Spoiler Alert] Sister does not die in this film. But, for me, it was not working.
First, this Sparkle (2012) is produced by Bishop T.D. Jakes which explains a lot about the film’s departure from the original script. For me, the 2012 film went to two opposing extremes that was not present in the original film. On one side, the mother is a clothing store owner turned into this extreme Christian woman in which there is church every Sunday, bible study classes, minimal television, and her life story becomes “a cautionary tale” of the evils of the music industry from a route that she had gone down (which is annoyingly never fully described in detail in the film). In the original film while, the sisters sang in church, the mother is a maid trying to make ends meet and take care of her daughters while at the same time letting them live their lives and pursue their dreams. Then the other extreme in Sparkle (2012) is the character of Sister. Although in the original film, Sister was somewhat narcissistic, she was just a pretty girl who liked nice things, nice things that probably her mother could never get her. However, in the remake, Sister is the story of a woman though art loose as if she just stepped out of rap music video. Then Sparkle is the virgin probably destined to marry a preacher when in the original, Sparkle although innocent was romantically involved with Stix. Then the other sister Dolores, played by Tika Sumpter in the 2012 film, is the ambitious, black power woman who is applying to med school while sporting an Afro as her symbol of acknowledgment of race relations in 1960s Detroit. In my opinion, the film then had this Tyler Perry effect in which black characters lives are exaggerated and everything has to be a battle of the opposites with no middle ground. It becomes a war of church versus pop, virginity versus promiscuity. Then if you are trying to make it out of the ghetto, no ordinary job will do, it has to be a medical degree. Although the film was attempting to give us different black women, as a black woman, I felt forced to choose one or the other. The characters felt one note and simplistic to me with very little back-story offered. Then in the end, Whitney Houston is singing “His Eyes are on the Sparrow” in church for no apparent reason related to the story and in Sparkle’s final performance she is backed by a choir leaving us with the same Tyler Perry scenario as a church song is the answer to all your problems as black women. For me the film just seemed to follow too many clichés.
T.D. Jakes talks about the film in an article for the Examiner:
I think it’s the kind of story that people of faith can use to say that there are advantages to walking with God in everyday life and even if you’re one of the few that does so in your family it can be very uplifting, particularly for Christians that live in the real world and interact with all types of people and have to maintain their integrity.
Although, I could appreciate that message, why do films that seek to express this follow the same cliches and limited expressions of character especially for black women (the film depicts us either as promiscuous or pure virgins). Then, it seeks a simple and easy, somewhat lazy resolution, as just simply talking to your mother and sing an uplifting song, to what could have been a complex narrative (although any complexity that it would have had is boggled down by those cliches).
In my opinion, the original story had many layers and so did its characters. It was not just a story about getting a record deal and whether to sing secular music or church music (as if that’s the only struggle that female singers face), but it was also a story about survival, struggling in the ghetto, coming into your own as a woman, what defines success, relationships and family (as the original film is very much about Sparkle’s relationship with her Sister and Stix more than her own individual goals), love, etc.
Sparkle (2012) also seeks to make some statements about race. But instead of it being a natural progression of 1960’s life, it becomes just “by-the-way” comments that are more associated with humor in the film. For example, instead of a drug dealer like in the original, Sister becomes involved with a comedian Satin, played by Mike Epps who tells “black jokes” to white audiences for a living. Even when Mike Epps decides to now tell jokes for black audiences as if he has just received a wake up call and pride in his race, I am not amused and neither does the film take his efforts seriously as in the scene where he is performing for black audiences, you could hear a pin drop. Then Dolores (also the darker skinned sister) sports an afro to a meeting at Columbia records with jaws of Stix and Sparkle wide open at this change in hairdo and Stix with the look of what went wrong written all over his face.
But like I said, if you never saw the original film, this might win you over. But instead the 2012 film just make me nostalgic for the original and while Jordin Sparks has a beautiful voice, I missed Irene Cara. And the compositions arranged this time around by R. Kelly, compared to those of Curtis Mayfield in 1976, did not due it for me either. This time around the songs felt rushed and mixed to compensate for these awkward Destiny Child-esque dance moves with see through dresses such as that in the performance of “Giving Him Something He Could Feel.” The compositions arranged by Curtis Mayfield took their time to highlight each vocal note and piano key and let the audience settle in on Sister and Sparkle’s face. As for Whitney Houston’s final performance, it just left me paralyzed and yearning to watch The Bodyguard (1992).
Please Hollywood, start finding original stories. I have Sparkle (1976) on DVD.