Whitney Houston's role in Sparkle, Salim Akil's sturdy and enjoyable remake of Sam O'Steen's nearly unwatchable 1976 film of the same name, is tailored to the late diva. As Emma, Houston plays the surly matriarch of a trio of singing sisters – Sister, Delores and Sparkle – and a former singer herself who was "almost killed" by the business. Houston, who co-produced the film, plays the role with the world-weary hoarseness apparent in virtually every public appearance she did in the 10 years before her death. Despite some moments of poignancy, this is mostly light fare and Whitney camps it up with bitchily dignified flair. It is her best acting role, which is not saying very much given that she never suggested she was anything more than competent on screen while alive, but nevertheless, it is a lovely swan song.
And knowing what we know about the end of Whitney Houston's life, it's really weird to watch her say the kinds of things she says in this role: "If you're gonna tell my tragic story, at least give me the favor of getting it correct," Emma says at one point. "You have never seen me laying in my own vomit."
"Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?" she says later, and then: "You can have a gift. It's how you use it."
People will see Sparkle to get their last hit of Whit, but it satisfies on other levels, too. The matte color scheme is chic, the costumes are as opulent as the late '60s setting demands, the songs are almost all excellent. Four of them are Curtis Mayfield-written numbers ported over from the 1976 original, but may favorite of all is Goapele's "Heatwave"-soundalike "Running." This is high melodrama, soap-opera musical queues and all, reminiscent of Valley of the Dolls in its stiltedness and wary regard of fame.
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