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'Sparkle' review: Better than the original, still a little worn

**1/2 (out of four)

With his first feature screenplay, Joel Schumacher (who went on to direct, uh, classics like “Batman & Robin” and “The Number 23”) loaded the 1976 melodrama “Sparkle” with painfully inauthentic scenes in which black characters constantly describe white characters as “cracker” or, in a scene of an abusive relationship, “Bitch, crawl!” The horrifically paced movie (loosely inspired by the Supremes, who also factored into “Dreamgirls”) doesn’t seriously address a trio of African-American singers and their push toward stardom; it just demonstrates how a story can turn into sub-Lifetime material in the wrong hands.

Updating the setting from 1958 Harlem to 1968 Detroit, the remake of “Sparkle” takes a big step up in legitimacy while sticking to a story as old as song. Nineteen-year-old Sparkle (Jordin Sparks, not much of an actress) wants to be a star but fears singing alone, so she’s glad when manager Stix (ever-reliable Derek Luke) includes Sparkle’s sisters, Sister (Carmen Ejogo) and Dee (Tika Sumpter, in the movie’s best performance), in the act. A sweetly sung tune and Sister’s short dress later, the gals are a hit.

Director Salim Akil (“Jumping the Broom”) and writer Mara Brock Akil (Salim’s wife, penning her first feature script after writing for shows like “The Game” and “Girlfriends”) consider race as a factor in both a changing society and professional aspirations. This occurs most strongly through successful comedian Satin (Mike Epps), who’s far more fully drawn here than in the original as he romances Sister with his wealth more than his character. After the girls’ overprotective mom Emma (the late Whitney Houston, in her final performance) calls him a “coon,” Satin insists he’s more of a “sambo.” Later he finds out how his material, focused on the behavior of African-Americans, plays in front of a black audience rather than a white one.

That’s far more interesting than anything in the story of “Sparkle,” which drags on through the usual beats of fame and tragedy and heartache and love. Amateur editing also dries out a film that livens up in its few musical performances, including Houston’s pipes taking center stage for a song in church. She hits the high notes as needed; “Sparkle” shines here and there.

 

 

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com. @mattpais

 

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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