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Originally published Thursday, August 16, 2012 at 11:45 AM

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Sadly, the ghost of Whitney Houston haunts new film 'Sparkle'

"Sparkle," directed by Salim Akil and starring Jordin Sparks and Whitney Houston, is a remake of a 1976 show-business film about a girl who follows her dream to become a singer. It's not bad, but the ghost of the real Whitney Houston hangs over it so heavily it's difficult to enjoy, writes Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald in this review. The film is playing at several Seattle area theaters.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 2.5 stars

'Sparkle,' with Jordin Sparks, Whitney Houston, Derek Luke, Mike Epps, Carmen Ejogo, Tika Sumpter, Omari Hardwick. Directed by Salim Akil, from a screenplay by Mara Brock Akil. 111 minutes. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving domestic abuse and drug material, and for some language, violence and smoking. Several theaters.

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It's hard to get lost in a showy movie musical when real life keeps intruding. "Sparkle," a remake of the 1976 film about a young girl determined to follow her dream of becoming a singer/songwriter, has a glittery shadow hanging over it — that of the late Whitney Houston, in her final screen role. "Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale?" Houston's character Emma, a former pop star who struggled with the pressures of fame, asks her daughter in the film. You can't help hearing Houston, not Emma, and the question lingers in the air longer than it should.

Emma's role, though, is a secondary one: "Sparkle" is essentially about its title character, Sparkle Anderson (Jordin Sparks), the youngest of Emma's three daughters. She persuades her siblings, Sister aka Tammy (beautiful Carmen Ejogo) and Delores aka The Other One (Tika Sumpter), to form a girl group with her — and, since it's 1968 Detroit, they quickly become a hit. Because this is a melodrama and not a comedy, things do not go smoothly for the girls. Sister becomes involved with a troubled, abusive comedian (Mike Epps), Sparkle must face her mother's angry disapproval for singing anywhere other than church and Delores — well, she gets a few minutes of plot midway through, then promptly vanishes from the movie. (Supposedly she's off to medical school; for all we know, she's off fronting her own group somewhere.)

The performances through "Sparkle" are strong — Sparks has a gentle, sweet little- sister quality that draws you to her, nicely balanced by Ejogo's smoldering fire — and the colorful 1960s costumes (by Ruth E. Carter) and elaborate hairstyles are a kick. (Note that Sparks' hair, during the film's most elaborately tragic events, suddenly acquires what I can only call Bangs of Despair; which promptly disappear as soon as she gets happier.) The music, much of it newly written, delivers just the right mix of bouncy pop and smooth-as-velvet ballads.

But you can't ignore the real pop legend in the room. Late in the film, when Emma sings a moving, passionate rendition of the gospel song "His Eye Is On the Sparrow," you think only of Houston, of a life ended too soon, and of what might have been.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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