Yeah, you’re allowed to think “Dreamgirls,” because “Dreamgirls” came AFTER the 1976 Cara musical about sisters trying to make it in Motown. They’re plowing the same ground as a century of other showbiz musicals — good kids lured away from religion and piety by the limelight’s glow, stumbling into drugs, sex and abuse before trying to pull it all together for one big show.
This time, it’s been engineered as a vehicle for pop starlet Jordin Sparks. But it serves as a curtain call for Whitney Houston, who postponed her tragic self-destruction long-enough to deliver one last reminder of a career that might have been.
And when the late Ms. Houston isn’t upstaging the title character, the veteran bombshell Carmen Ejogo (“The Brave One”) is. As the sultry siren “Sister” lead singer to Sparkle, Sparks’ songwriting sibling, Ejogo makes sure nobody is watching Sparkle whenever these three sisters (Tika Sumpter is the third) take the stage. Ejogo plays this prodigal dish as sex incarnate, a gold digger with bad decisions to burn.
Sparkle needs Sister to front her group, to get across her songs. It’s 1968 Detroit, and if they can get noticed, they might get Berry Gordy to sign them to Motown Records.
Stix (Derek Luke) is the fast-talking promoter who might make that happen. And he might spark to Sparkle, too.
“My momma’s got a GUN,” Sparkle warns him. But that’s not nearly as scary as Houston’s fearsome scowl. She keeps the reins tight on her girls. Sparkle has a future. Dolores (Sumpter), the curt, spunky one, is headed to medical school. Maybe Sister can marry a doctor.
Men chase the girls, including a ground-breaking comic, given a sold-out-and-he-knows-it edge by Mike Epps. The girls chase their dreams. Their momma, who had her own big voice and big plans once, lectures them.
“Was my life not a cautionary enough tale for you?”
The new songs don’t clash terribly with the vintage music from the era included on the soundtrack. There are anachronisms in the stage act and costumes (way too racy for the era) and the dialogue. But for the most part, this is a perfectly serviceable version of a time-worn tale, entirely too long. This production by the preacher T.D. Jakes, who parlayed his ministry into a movie producing career (“Jump the Broom” came from the same team), is almost a half hour longer than the ’76 “Sparkle.”
Sparks is a perfectly good pop singer in the modern post-Whitney histrionic mold. But she lacks screen charisma. We should feel more when Stix offhandedly tells her that he sees her as “backup,” not the lead. Teamed up with Sumpter (great timing) and Ejogo (gorgeous, vulnerable), Sparks shrinks into the background the way Selena Gomez did in her first “adult” role.
With a name like Sparks and a title like “Sparkle,” that’s what you expect her to deliver. She doesn’t.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for mature thematic content involving domestic abuse and drug material, and for some violence, language and smoking
Cast: Jordin Sparks, Whitney Houston, Derek Luke, Carmen Ejogo, Tika Sumpter, Mike Epps
Credits: Directed by Salim Akil, written by Mara Brok Akil, based on the screenplay by Howard Rosenman and Joel Schumacher. A Tristar release.
Running time: 1:54