Messy, tear-stained and bighearted, this remake of Sam O’Steen’s 1976 musical moves its trio of ’60s singing superstars from Harlem to home-of-Motown Detroit, and focuses more explicitly and poignantly on ideas of black womanhood and success. Despite the title, the film’s story is less about meek songwriter Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) finding her way to the spotlight while her sisters form a girl group and implode under the pressure of personal drama, than it is about the siblings’ struggles to find a way out of the working-class life in which they were raised. While Sparkle fights to prove that there’s a path in show business that doesn’t involve getting used and discarded, Dolores (Tika Sumpter) aims for medical school, and Sister (Carmen Ejogo) wields her beauty like a weapon onstage and off. Each young woman challenges their mother’s idea of a well-behaved life with her own powerful hunger for something more.
At the center of the film is Whitney Houston, in her final role, as an ironfisted matriarch; looking drawn and uncomfortable, the late singer only comes alive when she lets loose with a church hymn. Nevertheless, the performance is fiercely bittersweet, both thanks to its real-life context and the conflicting desires that the character represents. Emotional and unrestrained, the film sometimes lets its melodrama gets the better of it, particularly in regard to Sister’s relationship with an abusive comedian (Mike Epps). Thankfully, Ejogo is incandescent as the group’s talented, destructive star, slinking through Curtis Mayfield songs and throwing herself into the character’s downward spiral with admirable abandon. Sister is the one you remember; like the film, she’s mesmerizing because of her flaws as well as her charms.
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