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Rarely are remakes better than the original. That’s mainly due to the fact that studios remake movies that were popular, knowing full well that people will check out the new one based on the name alone. Sparkle isn’t like that—its cult following hardly makes it popular—and it’s one of the rare films that manages to outdo its predecessor in nearly every way, but considering how abysmal the 1976 original is, that’s hardly saying much. Despite its improvements, it still fails to achieve anything beyond cheap soap opera-esque melodrama.

Inspired by the film that was inspired by The Supremes, Sparkle follows three sisters who try to make it big in Detroit in the late 1960’s. There’s Sparkle (Jordin Sparks), the songwriter, Sister (Carmen Ejogo), the star and lead singer, and Dolores (Tika Sumpter), the…other one. Their talent shines through pretty easily and they quickly gain popularity, but success isn’t always an easy undertaking. Soon, Sister hooks up with a local comedian named Satin (Mike Epps) who introduces her to drugs and abuse. Coupled with their disapproving mother, Emma (Whitney Houston in her final role), Sister’s predicament threatens to tear the group apart and snatch success away from them.

In a way, Sparkle is like last year’s Footloose remake. Both took mostly terrible movies and made them better with tolerable, though never fully successful, updates. But whereas Footloose was only a minor step forward, Sparkle is a giant leap. It expands on characters that were largely ignored in the original and it sets a steady pace that feels neither rushed nor slow. In the original, the Dolores character was simply there, never really amounting to much of anything—in fact, she may as well have been nameless—but here, she is a fully fleshed out character with plenty to say, even if what she says isn’t too terribly interesting. Likewise, more time is spent establishing the abuse Sister is dealing with, both from self-inflicted drug use and from her evil boyfriend. She doesn’t abruptly hit a decline the way she does in the original. She steadily gets there and the villain is more than just a face here. He’s a personality.

But while its pace may be steady, 2012’s Sparkle unfortunately retains all of the eye rolling histrionics that were a staple of the 1976 original. It goes down a completely different path about halfway through (Sister’s ultimate demise doesn’t occur this time around), but it feels largely the same. It tries so hard to portray certain events in a sad, emotional light that they end up having the reverse effect. It’s really hard to make a scene of abuse even tolerable, much less funny, but Sparkle somehow manages it. With some questionable behind the camera decisions and a villain who is hammed up by an actor most known for his comedy, watching someone take lashes to the back with a belt has never been so amusing.

Luckily, there are some funny moments of the genuine variety in Sparkle. The film is surprisingly sharp, though the problem remains that it’s not a comedy, but rather a drama, one that’s supposed to make you feel something—anything at all, really—but it never does, with the exception of one scene, when the late Whitney Houston sings her only song in the movie, which amounts to her last performance ever. It comes at a pivotal moment in the film and it works on the intended narrative level, but also on a level we all wish it didn’t need to. The song is sung at church, where she sings of heaven being home, which, regardless of your religious beliefs or perception of the singer herself, will give you goose bumps. It’s the best and most powerful scene in the entire movie.

Unfortunately, the rest of it is lacking in scenes like that. Most of the songs aren’t meant to be emotional, but they’re not memorable or snappy enough to work. They’re better than the ones presented in the original if only because they’re modernized and not outdated, but that hardly makes them good. What Sparkle is missing in nearly every aspect of its production, from its songs to its characters to its story, is imagination. It all feels so ho hum, it’s hard to muster up much excitement for it, but at the same time, it’s difficult to adopt a loathsome attitude towards it. It’s neither great nor terrible, though it is, sadly, closer to the latter than the former. Remaking the awful original was a good idea because it really had nowhere to go but up. If they ever remake this again and manage to cut out some of the forced melodrama, it might actually be something worth watching.

Sparkle receives 2/5

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