Published Monday, 15 October 2012
Watching a posthumous film appearance is a very strange and sad experience. You can't help getting hung up on every look and word from the departed performer. Whitney may be gone, but in song and on the big screen, she lives on.
The film begins on the soulful stage of the Discovery Club in Detroit, 1968. Ce Lo Green is at the mic, topping the bill on a talent show looking for the next big thing. Enter straight-laced songwriter Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) and her sassy songstress sister Tammy (Carmen Ejogo) who blow the roof off the joint. Soon, their all girl group, Sister and Her Sisters, complete with middle sibling Delores, is painting Motown red. However, this family affair is more likely to hit the rocks than top the charts, as the naive girls get exposed to sex, drugs and the dark side of soul.
Salvation is to be found in the matriarch of the family, Mama Anderson, played by the late, great Whitney Houston. The rules of living under her sacred roof are spelt out to the swing out sisters "Respect, getting an education and having a relationship with The Lord".
Amazingly, Houston first appears in pink hair curlers and a dowdy dressing gown, looking more like Hilda Ogden than a pop superstar. Her world weary and wise Mama with the husky voice wants her daughters to be doctors not divas. She bribes them with the latest pop songs on colour TV but only after one hour of bible study.
"My mum used to sing professionally" explains Sparkle "She had to break out and it nearly killed her". Mama Anderson has been on the boulevard of broken dreams and still has the scars to show for it. "If you're going to tell my tragic story, get it right" Whitney Houston croaks at her daughter. And it is impossible not to think of the singers real life rise and fall. Houston's face does not disguise the descent. You can see the tracks of her tears. She looks a lot older than her 48 years.
Sparkle the character does shine through a perky performance from former American Idol winner Jordin Sparks. Sparkle the film, enjoyable as it is, only really dazzles during the show stopping set pieces. The bigger drama fares less well. Director Salim Akil sets up 1968 as a momentous year of political change being led by Martin Luther King, but then inexplicably fails to mention the civil rights leader's assassination that same year.
However, one scene that does leave a lump is a last song by Whitney Houston. She began the road to super stardom singing as a child in the church choir and here, she ends with the powerful hymn His Eye Is On The Sparrow. "I sing because I'm happy. I sing because I am free" she belts out in front of a tearful congregation. It's impossible not to see her whole career flash before your eyes. Bittersweet memories indeed.
Sparkle (Cert 12a) is now on general release.