Sparkle: Whitney Houston gives a poignant final performance

The late singer is among several cast members likely to turn heads in this rags-to-riches remake.

Jordin Sparks, left, stars as the singer Sparkle and Whitney Houston plays her mother, Emma. Courtesy Stage 6 Films
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Director: Salim Akil

Starring: Whitney Houston, Jordin Sparks, Carmen Ejogo
***

It is impossible to view this likeable, breezy remake without homing in on the late Whitney Houston. The singer, who died suddenly while the film was in post-production in February, had long wanted to revive the 1976 hit musical that had inspired her as a teenager. Not surprisingly, it was being prepped as a comeback vehicle for the star, last seen on screen in 1996's

The Preacher's Wife

.

Thankfully, Houston (also the film's executive producer) comes across well in her final performance. Yes, her voice is hoarse and raspy, but her screen presence is very much intact. She looks positively vibrant - delighted, in fact, to be back in the saddle.

She plays Emma, a stern mother of three girls who want to do more than sing in their local church.

This fresh take on

Sparkle

opts for the looser, racier environs of 1960s Detroit over the original's darker, 1950s Harlem vibe. The most confident of the three girls, Sister (Carmen Ejogo), is all shimmying and sultry soul. The meek youngest sister, Sparkle (Jordin Sparks), quietly writes the songs. The middle sister, Dee (Tika Sumpter), is the most pragmatic of the three.

The original

Sparkle

was a blueprint for the similarly themed

Dreamgirls

(itself a fictionalised account of the rise of The Supremes), and like any rags-to-riches tale, pain and heartache are required before redemption and a resolution are found. Sister soon suffers at the hands of the oily Satin (Mike Epps), a comedian-turned-drug pusher whose violent behaviour recalls the brilliant but brutal figure of Ike Turner. Similarly, Sparkle admonishes her mother for being "laid up in your own vomit" when they were kids, which must have felt painfully close to the bone for Houston, given those ugly paparazzi photos of her later years.

Such stuff pales in comparison, though, to the most poignant of lines, which Houston herself utters. "Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?" she says to her girls, seemingly as unaware as they were of the events that would unfold. Houston's muted but committed performance of the hymn

His Eye is on the Sparrow

at the end serves as a sad but rousing farewell.

Attention will undoubtedly also tend towards the

American Idol

winner Jordin Sparks (who, like

Dreamgirls

's Jennifer Hudson before her, delivers a solid turn on screen) and Ejogo, whose powerhouse performance as Sister is so astonishing you'll wonder where she's been hiding (expect to see her nominated in the coming months).

There is great music, too, of course, both of the period and (curiously) more current (R Kelly supervises and Cee Lo Green cameos). Visually, the film evokes the 1960s era well enough, even if Martin Luther King Jr's assassination is bizarrely left out.

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