“Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?” asks Whitney Houston in the new remake of 1976 showbiz drama Sparkle. In the original, rising girl-group star Sister, of Sister and the Sisters, mixes herself up in the wrong crowd and flames out with a druggy flourish. Though the 2012 version spares Sister her life, death hangs over the entire production, owing to the participation (make that instigating spark) of Houston, who executive produced the remake and assumed the role of the Sisters’ stern mother hen, Emma. Houston’s death in a Beverly Hills bathtub earlier this year was no less shocking for having been widely predicted by tabloid culture for years prior, but much like with Michael Jackson’s passing, the hypocrisy of the public mourning a talent they earlier treated as an ongoing punchline was downright noxious.
That hypocrisy, unfortunately, extends to the rickety dramatic apparatus supporting Sparkle, because Houston’s death is just about the only thing that gives it real, albeit unintentional, life. American Idol winner Jordin Sparks takes on the title role, a perpetual third-place sibling living in 1960s Motor City who constantly sings under her breath because she refuses to admit that she really wants to sing the dozens of songs she’s jotting down in her red notebook, instead of giving them all away to her flashy, sultry sister, Sister (Carmen Ejogo). Her feigned, Diana Ross-like shyness gets called out by the first aspiring record producer to stick his finger under her demurring chin, but it becomes quickly apparent that her reluctance to seize the spotlight might also have something to do with the psychological domination of her mother.
At first, Emma’s stern curfews, forced Bible studies, and deadly side-eyes directed at every strapping young buck who flexes his charms in front of her three daughters seem like standard-issue Margaret White-like Jesus freakery, the necessary dramatic roadblocks to Sister and the Sisters’ quest for fame in the secular world. But as Sparkle rushes its way through every hollow showbiz cliché in the flipbook (e.g. Sister’s marriage to a pimpin’ comedian devolves into the Ike and Tina Turner Show in one hot minute), it becomes clear that Emma is only trying to stop her daughters from stumbling down the same path she did earlier in her own bid for stardom. Never mind that her emotional neglect is evidently sending at least one of them hurling toward the same oblivion.
It’s disheartening enough to watch Houston’s character sniping about the dangers of the entertainment industry while her on-screen daughter is arriving late to gigs, eyes glazed over and specks of cocaine powder around her nose would’ve still carried a charge. It’s an entirely different level of shamefulness to release the film posthumously with lines of dialogue about how Emma’s daughters found her lying unconscious in piles of her own vomit left intact, poised to gut-punch the singer’s fanbase in order to then lift them up via Houston’s 11th-hour gospel rendition of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” The effect feels icky, like an inversion of Heath Ledger’s spell over The Dark Knight, a movie left haunted by its dead star’s seeming submission to his demons. Sparkle feeds from Houston’s off-camera struggles like a vampire, adapting elements of her fall from grace and putting her in the position to say “I told you so,” a point that wouldn’t have been made anywhere near as effectively had Houston not ended up a victim herself in real life.
Yet, one comes away from the film grateful for its queasy serendipity, because everything else surrounding Houston’s performance is strictly a diet version of Dreamgirls (which was itself pretty thin grits), with all the era’s social movements cast aside, save for a few references to riots that, for all they have affected the film’s characters, may as well have been happening on the moon. Sparkle‘s meant-to-be-intoxicating ‘60s fashion show, seductive vocal performances from Ejogo and Sparks, and its clear-cut morality all obviously work to sell the fairy tale that success is best won the hard but correct way, especially if you’re an impossibly meek girl. But the shock waves of Houston’s death and how eerily they play out in the film’s otherwise clumsy melodrama insist that, sometimes, success is the worst curse of all.