When Whitney Houston died in February, fans recalled her 35-year-long career and the legacy she left behind. But fans also had one more thing to grasp onto: “Sparkle.” The film, which co-stars Jordin Sparks, is Houston’s silver screen goodbye.
“Sparkle,” a remake of the 1976 film starring Irene Cara, is about big-dreamer Sparkle (Sparks) and her two sisters living in Detroit in the 1960s. The girls form a group and become Motown superstars, but fame is not a fairytale and life becomes challenging.
Houston plays Emma, the girls’ over-bearing mother who was a former R&B singer. The character’s mistakes and struggles in the music industry pushed her to turn toward the church for solace.
The role seems to echo parts of Houston’s life.
Houston, who started out singing in her Newark, N.J. church, enjoyed immense fame before drugs began to take a toll. In the months prior to her death, Houston was reportedly trying to become more connected with God. In the film, she warns her daughters of the dangers of the entertainment industry.
Critics reviewed Houston’s “Sparkle” performance and noted the vibrancy she displayed on screen.
“At times, it’s like a Joan Crawford neurotic-mother fantasy, and the gravelly conviction of Whitney Houston’s performance proves that this could have been the first step not merely in a comeback but in a major re-invention,” Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gliberman wrote. “She had the instincts of a superb character actress.”
“Envisioned as a starring vehicle for Sparks, ‘Sparkle’ is also a fitting curtain call for Houston,” USA Today reporter Claudia Puig said. “Her character’s ultimate willingness to acknowledge her daughter’s dreams and encourage the musical aspirations of the next generation is a lovely final tribute.”
Houston does not truly show off her own vocal chords until the end of the film. Houston’s voice, which has changed throughout the years, proved to be as moving as ever.
“While ‘Sparkle’ doesn’t give the audience a lasting memory of Houston’s voice at its most soaring, it does manage to provide a lingering sense of loss, mixed with celebration and grim irony,” according to Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday.
Houston’s performance aside, the film overall received decent reviews, but critics were sure to highlight the pitfalls, many of which focused on Sparks’ performance.
“Here’s the main problem with the film,” Vicki Hyman of The Star Ledgersaid. “It keeps returning to earnest, just-happy-to-be-here Sparkle, when Sister is the real showstopper: daring and damaged, vixenish yet vulnerable. Whether she’s performing at the clubs in a series of ever-more-microscopic minidresses or scrambling for her next fix (‘Sister can’t fly on one wing’), you can’t take your eyes off her. Ejogo, a British actress and singer, deserves a showcase of her own.”
Sparks’ acting was also viewed as weak.
“The film is meant to be a showcase for Sparks. But while she is a sweet presence, she isn’t a natural actress,” the New York Daily News‘ Elizabeth Weitzman wrote. “She lacks the vulnerability of Irene Cara, the original Sparkle, and doesn’t seem fully comfortable until the soaring finale, when she’s allowed to tap into her true gift: her voice.”
“While the film’s melodrama is laughable (after Sister’s comedian beau, played by Mike Epps, flops at a club, the two run – in slow-motion – to the car), the real problem is that it’s unclear who the main character is supposed to be,” according to People magazine’s Lesley Messer. Messer goes on to say that, even though the title makes it seem like Sparkle (Sparks) is the star, the plot revolves mainly around Sister (Carmen Ejogo).
Messer concludes, writing, “If ‘Dreamgirls’ was a diamond, ‘Sparkle’ is a cubic zirconia: It feels like a cheap imitation of the real thing.”
Reviews may have been shaky, but those dearest to Houston were nothing but thrilled with the final product. Houston’s daughter Bobbi Kristina celebrated the premiere of her mother’s movie with singer Ray J and her aunt Pat Houston.
Ray J told E! News he was “touched” and “emotional” to see Houston’s last work.
“I can’t even start with one thing [I wish people would remember about her],” he said. “It’s just so much.”
“Sparkle” opens in theaters nationwide Friday, Aug. 17.