Light it Up
By Adam Rathe
Photograph by Alicia Gbur
Sparkle can’t help but be known as Whitney Houston’s last movie. And while the song-soaked tale of a young girl living out her Motown dreams is a fitting final picture for the late diva, it’s more than just an ending; it’s a beginning, too.
“I didn’t know it was going to be my big-screen debut,” says Jordin Sparks, the American Idol alum who landed the film’s title role. “It was my first time auditioning for a movie, and I saw the name and thought, Oh my gosh, Jordin Sparks in Sparkle! That made me excited. Then I read the script and it jumped off the page.”
The film should resonate; after all, it’s been made before. But even though Sparks’s debut vehicle is based on the 1976 Sparkle -- featuring Irene Cara as the titular songstress and a Curtis Mayfield–produced soundtrack -- the forthcoming flick got an upgrade from director Salim Akil.
“Initially, I didn’t want to do it,” he says. “I just felt like people loved this movie, and if I fucked it up, it’d really kill me.” Finding his own way to approach the story—with help from his screenwriter wife, Mara Brock Akil -- was the key to reinventing Sparkle.
“There were certain things that I felt could be fun to reinterpret,” Salim says. “What began to draw me in was the idea of empowering the women in the movie. I wanted to do something more aspirational.”
Part of that comes from the film’s strong performances, with Carmen Ejogo and Tika Sumpter as Sparkle’s sisters and bandmates, and Derek Luke as her manager and sweetheart. But the strength of the movie is also its music, especially “Celebrate,” an R. Kelly–produced duet between Sparks and Houston; it’s reportedly the last song Houston ever recorded.
“I first heard the song after she passed,” says Sparks, “and it was one of those out-of-body experiences because she sounds so happy and you can feel the joy when she’s singing.”
In fact, the troubled Houston’s dark side wasn’t present at all on set.
“Working with Whitney was incredible,” says Sparks. “Sometimes you look up to somebody and you meet them and get completely let down, and that was not the case with Whitney. It was everything and more.”
And if seeing Houston’s swan song is what draws in viewers, Sparks is all for it.
“I think a lot of people are going to say, ‘Oh, it’s Whitney’s last film, let’s go see it.’ But everybody’s going to walk away saying, ‘Wow, that’s incredible!’ ”