“You were foxy up there!” Big Black (Ceelo Green) means to impress the girl he just saw on stage, Tammy (Carmen Ejogo), but she’s not having any of it. At this point, just a few minutes into Sparkle, Tammy is self-assured and—apparently—self-aware. It’s 1968, and she’s heard all the stories of girls who fell for wrong guys, her mother included. And so she hasn’t only impressed Big Black exactly as she thought she would—by slitting her mini-dress up the side and sliding her hands along her thighs as she sang—but she has also set in motion a performance that will help her escape Detroit and the Discovery Club. She means to go far.
And so she won’t. You don’t have to know anything about the 1976 Sparkle to anticipate just where Tammy is headed in the 2012 version. Deemed “the singer in the family,” according to her not-exactly-shy songwriting sister Sparkle (Jordin Sparks), Tammy (who performs as “Sister”) feels pressure to perform, but also reluctance. She’s already disappointed her mother, Emma (Whitney Houston), by coming home pregnant and “unable to take care of it,” and she’d rather not suffer that particular wrath again. Still, she sneaks out of Emma’s house with Sparkle and their other sister, aspiring doctor Dee (Tika Sumpter), to sing in nightclubs and solicit men’s attention.
Once Big Black and then a few other men decide the girls will make some money, their sneaking out turns more regular. Soon, “Sister and Her Sisters” are local stars, which means she’s looking to dump her sort-of boyfriend, the eminently pathetic and understandably jealous Levi (Omari Hardwick), even as his cousin Stix (Derek Luke) is playing manager for the group and sort-of boyfriend for Sparkle. The “sort-of” question is raised because Sparkle has a seemingly impossible time imagining convincing relationships: interactions between two people here are strictly plotty, such that affections and betrayals are clumsily slotted in between entertainments rather than developing connections or anticipations for people over time.
These entertainments are provided by the songs, mostly, and any scene with Whitney Houston in it. The songs are fine, though they also suffer in comparison to the first film (Ejogo’s cover of “Something He Can Feel” is especially disadvantaged after Aretha did it for the first Sparkle and then En Vogue did it again in ‘92). One unwieldy montage sequence does have an idea behind it, at least, in that it cuts between scenes of Stix hustling at pool to pay for the girls’ sexy costumes, and the girls in their new dresses, increasingly expensive, while their audiences appear increasingly snooty.
The gaudy execution overwhelms the idea, but at least the artifice is a possible point here. The same can’t be said for a couple of scenes showing Sister’s descent into drug use and domestic abuse by her mentor and husband, Satin (Mike Epps). A stand-up comedian with a knack for using racist stereotypes to earn white audiences’ approval and cash, Satin is a cartoonish character from jump, broadly drawn and bullying. As he first lusts after Sister and then beats her (apparently, acting on his frustrations over “cooning” for a living), he never emerges as more than an illustration of Grand Themes. In this he’s not unusual in the film, but he’s also not persuasive: it’s hard to see why anyone would fall for his self-promoting shtick, except that you know Sister must, especially when he performs it as a way to berate her mother—at Sunday dinner after church, no less.
In this scene, Satin makes a key point, that almost any mode of performance can be self-deceptive and self-destructive. He calls out Emma’s favorite dinner guest, the reverend (a terrific Michael Beach, who dials down his character’s villainy and ignorance so it resembles someone who might exist in a world outside this movie), pronouncing, “You collect your fee at the pew, I collect it at the doh!” In other scenes, however, Satin is merely a plot point, incomprehensible and quite literally passing through the frame. During one of his assaults on Sister, the camera tracks the couple as they make their way across their home, peering in through windows at their slow-motion encounter. The scene is at once surreal and silly, but never convincing, less a revelation of his anguish or her terror than a trivial sort of dance.
That Sparkle lacks emotional or even moral weight isn’t a surprise, exactly, as the first film is hardly deep. Still, it’s a disappointment, that it’s so poorly crafted, awkwardly edited, episodic, superficial (“You got Dr. King and the war,” Stix proclaims to Sparkle in an effort to rouse her songwriting to new contextualized heights, “I don’t think your metaphorical lyrics are gonna fly anymore!”). But when a film is generating laughter at the sight of women bloodied and bruised at the hands of men, something is seriously missing.
What’s missing is made apparent in the scene where Whitney sings. Emma’s in church, in an anomalous scene that has no lead-up or narrative effect. But as Whitney sings “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” her performance is imperfect, troubled and troubling, and absolutely mesmerizing. It has nothing to do with anything in the film. It’s a moment about loss and pain and longing, about faith and trust and betrayal. It’s also about Whitney, who is the only reason to see Sparkle. She’s lost. And we miss her.