Sparkle is a lush cinematic cultural artifact sustained by a sumptuous set, a dynamic soundtrack, and the rigorous artistry of its cast. Akil Production Company, along with two-time Emmy nominee Debra Martin Chase (The Princess Diaries; Just Wright), pay a respectful homage to its 1976 predecessor. No cameos needed.
The film opens in 1968 to a cacophony of voices broadcasting newsworthy events: The Vietnam War, The Beatles, civil rights and Martin Luther King, Jr. The camera swoops into Discovery, a juke-joint whose ambience of smoky rhythm, saucy blues, and salty sweat, is thickened by R&B crooner, Black (Cee-Lo Green). As his soulful "I am a Man" opens the action, placards held by Memphis Sanitation workers in 1968 captured by African American photographer Ernest C. Withers flash in my mind.
This socio-cultural context signals that Akil Production Company and Chase have crafted a film that expands the 1976 story but stands on its own. The operative word? Story. Rather than inundate the audience with a multitude of song and dance routines, the film focuses on the story of a single African American mother, Emma (Whitney Houston) who successfully has raised three attractive, well-adjusted, and talented daughters, Tamy/Sister (Carmen Ejogo), Dolores "Dee", (Tika Sumpter), and Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) in the bustling city of Detroit, Michigan. Emma's story is that of 1960s upward mobility despite setbacks she endured in her youth--the harshest being her teen-age pregnancy. Her rule is "respect, education and loving the Lord". The cinematic presence of the Black church denotes her anchor, and this institution no doubt facilitated the upbringing of her daughters and made possible the acquisition and preservation of her middle class existence.
Emma's home, beautifully shot by cinematographer Anastas N. Michos, highlights the trappings of her success: a two-story with a staircase; the Queen Anne and Bergère chairs; the small library with piano; crystal chandeliers; and the sugar and spice bedrooms replete with iron beds, vanities, and full length mirrors emphasized by pink and white flowered wallpaper. Craig Anthony's spectacular costumes showcase each lady in her sartorial splendor. For church, gloves, hats, and coat dresses trimmed in fur; and for daytime, suits and sheaths. Even the bedtime wardrobes are luxuriant: sheer nylon peignoirs accentuated with ruffles and bows, and quilted satin bathrobes in colors of aqua, champagne and pink.
The wall art of encased butterflies and birds, however, betray this charm. These set props give nod to Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem "Sympathy", whose first lines inspired the title of Maya Angelou's book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. On the whole, Sparkle is a graceful exploration of generational anxiety aggravated by socio-cultural changes. Emma's daughters are coming of age, and the painful transition causes domestic seismic shifts that disquiet Emma but feed her daughters' yearnings. Like the butterflies and the birds, the women in this household are trapped; yet, as does Dunbar's caged bird, each dares to break free from pasts that have held them and Emma hostage.
On another note, the Akils skillfully dramatize the forgotten art of courtship, and the duo's brilliant virtuosity of storytelling glistens here. Stix (Derek Luke) and Levi (Omari Hardwick) shines as wordsmiths coaxing the young women to consider them worthy suitors/partners. Hardwick, especially, translates with splendid bravura Levi's torment when he discovers that his words cannot compete with the conspicuous bling of the wealthy, but mean-spirited Satin (Mike Epps). Epps, in turn, gives a marvelous performance as the successful stand-up comedian whose jokes are contemptuous of African Americans. He brazenly flaunts his material success in front of Levi as Levi expresses his desire for Sister; later, however, he reveals his insecurity over his new material.
Expectedly, references to Motown and its talent line-up abound, yet do not overwhelm the story. The Akils, however, gently manipulate Motown's reputation to fuel the mother/daughter conflict and the quest for the dream. "I want to be bigger than Diana Ross," reveals Sparkle to Stix under the stars.
The sparkle, nonetheless, shines on Whitney Houston, Carmen Ejogo, and Tika Sumpter. Houston embodies Emma, and plays her with a cool, yet fierce sophisticated determination. Her life trials dance in her voice in His Eye is on the Sparrow. Ejogo, with artful efficiency, deftly manages the heart of Tamy/Sister, a restless 30-year-old young woman caught between her past failures and that of working as a domestic while living in her mother's house. Finally, Sumpter, with intelligent wit, steadies the sister-trio, as she moves between the tempestuous Tamy/Sister and the gentle-minded Sparkle.
Honorable mention to Michael Beach (Rev. Bryce) and Tamela Mann (Ms. Sara Waters).
If you have not seen Sparkle, you should. If you already have, see it again. This film is worth the price of the ticket. Twice.