The remake of the 1976 musical film “Sparkle” isn’t intended to serve as a historical document, but it does attempt to invoke the sounds and feel of the Motown era along with race relations in 1960s Detroit. It’s “American Idol” winner Jordin Sparks’ first significant film appearance as its title role, and was to be the late Whitney Houston’s return to the big screen (and now it serves as her swan song). It gets further wattage from freshly penned contemporary R&B songs from R. Kelly, as well as an ample opportunity reintroduce Curtis Mayfield classics like “Something He Can Feel.” It's got the sacred, the profane, and some soul.
Thus, the soundtrack to “Sparkle” ends up serving more than one master, which makes for a muddled effort. The first pieces to arrive from the set were both from Whitney Houston, to effectively link her to the project as the movie’s promoted. She sings with Sparks on “Celebrate,” which has gotten a hard push at adult top 40 and contemporary formats at radio, but her weathered pipes sound harsh compared to the youthful saccharine of the AI star’s vocals. Houston is much more suited to heart-filled spiritual classic “His Eye Is On The Sparrow,” with its slow speed, rusty lower range and all the room in the world for her religious pining.
Contrasting voices seemed to be the goal of Mayfield group reduxes “Jump,” “Hooked on Your Love” and the aforementioned “Something He Can Feel,” which remain this collection’s most memorable tunes. Carmen Egojo – who leads the sibling girl-group in the film – has a matured, pillowy coo that always to have a whisper on its underside. Sparks and Tika Sumpter, on the other hand, inject a wholesome, Disney Princess backing to the songs but deflate any sexual energy Egojo emits, leading me to wonder if the mid-30-something has what it takes to blend in as a teenager in the film.
Many tracks have been updated with big synthetic bass beats and in-the-box effects, boasting an oversaturated master job that could only come from the 21st century. Sparks’ best solo vocal moment on “One Wing” is rendered hilarious because the Kelly or the studio apparently couldn’t write a check for a live horns section and continues to utilize the electric keyboard that positively ruins the sound of doe-eyed “Look Into Your Heart.” (Speaking of check-writing, the “sha-do-dos” of “Love Will” owe a serious debt to Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby.”)
It’s the one-offs from Cee Lo Green (“I’m a Man”) and Goapele
(“Running”) that more successfully honor the Motown sound, despite their modern trappings. And it’s Green that leads off this otherwise all-ladies, thoroughly PG-rated set.
Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with PG. But the result here is little beyond “nice,” a pleasant thrill of snap tracks and three-part harmonies, built into what the studio assumes will help make it commercially successful. Perhaps the film itself – pairing the sounds with the sites – can only tell the whole story. But while Amy Winehouse, Sharon Jones, Adele and Duffy embraced a full-blown Motown revival in recent years, the “Sparkle” soundtrack only sort of tips it hat, in favor of honoring its dozen other clashing priorities.