Whitney Houston’s remake of the film “Sparkle” – what has proved to be her final cinematic project – was a personal one. The superstar entertainer served as executive producer, headed up the soundtrack and starred in the musical movie. Those roles were a culmination of her long, legendary career, but her lead character Emma was developed to be, in part, an autobiographical reflection on Houston herself. She said as much.
The 48-year-old singer/actress was looking good – really good, actually -- when, three months ago, she breezed through the double doors of a Detroit church’s social hall, wearing all white. It was an appropriate setting for her interview with a handful of us journalists: the role of religion was injected into the updated script, which bumped up the story’s time period from the late ‘50s to 1968. Christianity and gospel music was added to inform the tale of a single-parent, African-American family of three gifted daughters who start a girl group during the height of Detroit’s musical influence and racial turmoil in America.
“It is presenting African-Americans in a beautiful light. Everybody on camera is just beautiful, and we’re smart and we’re educated and we’re dealing with our time of civil unrest. And raising children at that time as a single parent at that time must have been…” Houston took a hand to her brow. “Phew. That’s why I put church in it, because it’s a foundation. In my life I know -- and anybody who was raised in the church or the gospel or the Word -- that’s exciting, that’s what makes… everybody be able to feel it.”
Religion, race and motherhood: right there, so many identifiers that Houston bannered. She was the mother of one – Bobbi Kristina, who turns 19 this year, daughter with Bobby Brown. She was an entertainer that broke racial barriers and enjoyed success even amidst the entertainment industry’s inequalities. And, by God, she did it by God.
When Houston was asked if “Sparkle” was an opportunity for a career bounce-back, she shrugged “I don’t think of it as a comeback. I don’t think of it as a pressure. I think of it as a gift God gave me to contribute to a cast of people who are working as hard -- if not harder -- than I,” she said in her husky speaking voice, taking deep breaths between enunciated thoughts. “It’s in my family, bloodline. I can’t help it. It is something that God just said ‘this is what you do.’ It’s not a comeback. It’s innate. It’s natural.”
Houston couldn’t help but mixing her great loves and biggest interests. She revealed that Bobbi Kristina had it in her blood, that she was taking voice and acting lessons. Her cast- and crew-mates said Houston would lead prayer sessions, even little “revivals” between shoots. When I asked her about her “Sparkle” soundtrack writing-mate R. Kelly, she illustrated the R&B songwriter in terms of a holy man mixed with her own flesh-and-blood.
“He is a kind of musician the kind of person whom you can stand up and say ‘This is how I feel,’ and he’ll write a song about it in five minutes. And If anybody knows anything about anointing, he has anointing on him that’s powerful. I’ve watched it myself. And we’ve had our share of words… he’s like a brother to me. We talk about life and things that happen in life, and our triumphs and our survival of it. That makes a good song for anybody to sing or anybody to write.”
Houston displayed an enormous confidence in the “Sparkle” material, her co-stars like Jordin Sparks
and its director Salim Akil. The enthusiasm came from a familiarity with and admiration of the original 1976 film, which she watched repeatedly in the theaters, “for four months straight.”
“This was a positive reinforcement for young African-American women who are becoming young women and ultimately into full women. Anybody who wanted to pursue their dream or their desire to go and present their gifts… I just never let go of it.”
Years later, Houston and Debra Martin Chase partnered to find a time, place and a home for a “Sparkle” redux, a search that was marred by death and tragedy even before today’s gutting announcement of Houston’s passing. The first draft of the script was to be penned by author E. Lynn Harris, but he died in 2009, curbing the project. And efforts were derailed back in 2001, when their original lead – and beloved, young R&B singer – died in a plane crash.
“On that horrible Saturday, she actually was leaving the Bahamas to fly to Los Angeles to have lunch with the director on Tuesday,” Chase said in her interview of Aaliyah, who perished at just 22-years-old. “And we thought we’d walk out with a green light on the movie. It was horrible. It was so tragic. Nobody wanted to touch [‘Sparkle’] for a few years.”
But after the rights moved from Warner Bros. to Sony and personnel shifted around, Houston was convinced the 2012 remake could, again, be a go. “Jordin came, the rest of the cast came… it all worked out perfectly.”
There is no word yet what Screen Gems will do about the release, in consideration of today’s news. “Sparkle” was set to drop in August, which will or would be Houston’s fourth feature film. For fans, the hope will remain that the picture house – like the singer said – will “never let go of it.”