Alicia Gbur / AP
Whitney Houston plays mom Emma in the "Sparkle" remake.
REVIEW: The look, styles, dialogue and attitudes all feel more 21st century than 1968, but this new "Sparkle" still sparkles more brightly than its 1976 namesake, which was a sort of rough draft for Dreamgirls. Like its predecessor both melodramatic and predictable in illustrating the rough-and-tumble rise of a girl group in the black music scene, this new version pops with energy and adds welcome new angles to the plot and characters.
And there is also a vibrant Whitney Houston, both as executive producer and in an important role, in no way looking like she wouldn't survive until the film's release. The Sony/TriStar musical drama looks to deliver modest-to-decent returns in late summer release, with a good home-viewing career in store.
Set in Harlem in 1958, the original featured Joel Schumacher's first produced screenplay, was directed by ace film editor Sam O'Steen and derived most of its force from Lonette McKee's sensational performance as the gorgeous and oldest member of a three-sister singing act aiming for the big time. Unfortunately, she was gone before the movie was half over.
Evidently recognizing that the earlier script was a connect-the-dots affair with little meat on its bones, screenwriter Mara Brock Akil has not only brought the action forward by 10 years but made well-judged decisions about how to revise and moderately enrich the main characters, most of whom bear the same names as before.
At first, the “Sister and Her Sisters” singing group, like the film itself, gets by on the heart-stopping sex appeal of the Diana Ross-like lead singer, dynamically played with no shortage of allure by the stunning Carmen Ejogo. Like her siblings, appealing but virginal songwriter Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) and down-to-earth aspiring med student Dee (Tika Sumpter), Sister lives at home with their mother Emma (Houston) but can't wait to get out and sees musical success as her best shot.
One positive alteration right out of the box is changing the mother from what was frankly a boring worn-out domestic to a relatively prosperous middle-class character who never made it as a pop singer but can still bring down the house wailing gospel at church. Emma's past failure hangs over her daughters like a stationary cloud, and Houston does utter one line that reverberates with inescapable real-life implications: “Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?”
As the group begins to attract attention, Sister is courted by the earnest but penniless Levi (Omari Hardwick), who can't offer her what she really wants. One who can is the elegant local operator Satin (Mike Epps), a character who, in the original, was a standard-issue tough thug but here has been intriguingly reconceived as a smug, condescending comedian whose racial humor plays well with whites but not to fellow blacks. Accompanied wherever he goes by an albino factotum, Satin sweeps Sister off her feet but takes her to a darker, dire place.
For her part, the bashful Sparkle receives no end of encouragement and amorous attention from aspiring music manager Stix (Derek Luke), who sees it as his appointed task in life to make Sparkle realize her potential not only as a songwriter but as a performer; for her, Sister was always meant to be the star, with her as backup. The hyper-realist Dee wins points by bluntly admitting how she knows that nobody even notices her when her sisters are around -- at least until she becomes the first in the neighborhood to get an Afro haircut.
Through all the adversity and turmoil -- compounded most of all by Sister's drug addiction and abusive relationship as well as by Emma's stern disapproval of her daughters' career aspirations, which drives them all away -- Akil and her director-husband Salim Akil (last year's Jumping the Broom) keep a close eye on Sparkle's constant songwriting in her notepad; more than in the original, one feels that she is driven to create and express herself, even if she's never dared think of herself as a born performer. Given the robust vocalizing by Sparks, who burst on the scene as the winner of American Idol in 2006, there could scarcely have been any doubt.
The family's roots in gospel and church life are amply displayed, as is Houston's own deep connection to the form in a powerful, climactic number, “Celebrate,” that serves as her cinematic musical swan song. The musical choices, overseen by executive music consultant R. Kelly, are eclectic, ranging from sultry and/or soulful originals (some of which Kelly wrote) to vintage standards (Sarah Vaughan, Aretha Franklin, Sly and the Family Stone) and even some white pop (Cream, Nancy Sinatra) that "Sparkle" likes to watch on TV.
Where Sparkle scants is in credible period evocation. There's a mention of riots in Detroit and a glimpse of Martin Luther King Jr. on the tube but no sense that either means more to these characters than they would have to white teenagers in Portland. Nor is Dr. King's death even noted, though it took place in the year depicted. Despite having been shot in Michigan, very little specific atmosphere is imparted. Many of the sets look far too modern, just as the dialogue is studded with usages that were, in some cases, decades away.
But the interplay among the characters pulsates and the dramatic confrontations are sufficiently charged for the audience to get past the rampant aspirational cliches or at least ride with them. In what's mostly the women's film, Epps does a first-rate job as the oily seductor, while Luke manages credibly despite his character's goody-goody demeanor.
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