Let’s just be real: the Sparkle remake was never going to be an awards juggernaut. Re-imagined as a star vehicle for, ahem, American Idol winner and recording artist Jordin Sparks, the 2012 version of the film was a bit of a letdown. Loosely based on the gritty 1976 original, the new film never quite takes off and because of this actress Carmen Ejogo’s blisteringly soulful performance will very unfortunately not be getting the awards attention it so richly deserves. Playing “Sister”, the eldest daughter of righteous matriarch Emma (Whitney Houston) who fronts a girl group with her sisters Sparkle (Sparks, natch) and Dolores (Tika Sumpter), Ejogo delivers one of the year’s best performances that unfortunately happens to be in one of the year’s worst movies.
Highly stylized and set in 1976 Detroit, Sparkle moves far away from the first film’s hardscrabble Harlem milieu in favor of an inner city black middle class world that might have been manufactured for Douglas Sirk’s world, with it’s dramatically-staged Gospel numbers set in church and eye-popping set pieces dripping in schein as the trio works it out onstage. This elaborate backdrop allows the deeply moving, emotional work by Ejogo to starkly contrast with the almost oppressive artificiality and garishness of the production. She grounds the stilted movie in true passion, and in truly dynamic talent as witnessed in both her musical numbers as she belts out Curtis Mayfield’s love-ridden showstoppers and in her dramatic scenes as she descends into an abusive relationship and into drug abuse nearly as mercurially as she rose to fame as the leader singer of the girl group.
The remake takes a few tame steps back from the brutal original’s hard-knock approach when it comes to “Sister”’s eventual fate in the movie, and takes it easier on the character, expertly played in the 1976 version by Lonette McKee (who really should have been up for Supporting Actress awards that year). Ejogo strikes a balance between McKee’s deliberately rough, loud and bruised wild child and gives her “Sister” perhaps a touch more vulnerability, a touch more softness around the edges that McKee played with sharp, dangerously jagged bravado. Ejogo’s “Sister” is still the wounded bird that can’t fly on one wing, but her well of sorrow and pain is not masked by a hair-trigger temperament as McKee’s was but by a desperate, depressed neediness that makes the audience want to see her succeed, to see her sing, to see her as a hopeful rather than a tragic figure. To Ejogo’s credit, her “Sister” doesn’t invoke the grievous narratives of Amy Winehouse or the great Whitney Houston, but honors their memory by giving them a happy ending, by playing a shooting star that doesn’t burn away.
One of the truly great Supporting Actress turns of the year hidden in an unexpected place.