Playing this week is the last of the Qwanlin Cinema’s Filmtastic Films series for the fall season, formerly dubbed the Art Films series. It’s a musical effort entitled Sparkle, a remake of a 1976 film of the same name.

The updated Sparkle features a trio of young women loosely resembling the Supremes, a performance by an American Idol winner, and the last screen appearance of singer Whitney Houston, who died this past February at age 48.

Set in 1968-era Detroit—at the height of the Motown era— Sparkle casts Houston as Emma Andrews, the mother of the trio. Andrews is devout and stern church lady with a hidden past: in her younger days, she aspired to a career as a singer herself, but got led down the wrong path by disreputable friends who embroiled her in a world of drugs and smoky Detroit bars. Now reformed, she cautions her three girls against the singing career they all want, and cites her own experience as a cautionary tale to them.

But the three girls are determined to make it big, and each of them yearns for stardom in her own unique fashion. Dolores (Tika Sumpter) is the smart and practical one, and sees the trio as a means to amass enough money to finance her way through medical school.

Sister (Carmen Ejogo) is sexy and gloriously attractive, with her eyes firmly set on stardom, and the glamorous life it entails. Sister has forsaken her stalwart partner, Levi, for a scoundrel named Satin. He’s a standup comedian who panders to white audiences with the stage name Sambo, and reinforces their prejudices and stereotypes of blacks. Full of self-loathing for the way he degrades himself in his stage act, he numbs his pain with cocaine. An Ike Turner-type of figure, he beats Sister, and ultimately gets her hooked on cocaine too.

At nineteen, Sparkle (played by first-time actress and Idol winner Jordin Sparks, and by Irene Cara in the original version) is the youngest of the group. She’s shy, bubbly, and virginal—a talented songwriter who is extremely timid about singing her own material. When she does manage to sneak out of her mother’s house to make an appearance at a Detroit club, she insists on the more flamboyant Sister singing lead.

Sparkle was in post-production when Whitney Houston died, and the film isn’t really considered to be one of her better screen vehicles. But she does capture the vocal energy and charisma for which she was famed in a poignant singing of the gospel standard, “His Eye Is On The Sparrow”. Her voice is somewhat rough and gravelly, but its power and emotion is undiminished.

Sparkle drifts into the formulaic frequently, but it’s redeemed by Houston’s presence and by the melodic energy of her three onscreen offspring. The musical numbers are lushly filmed and choreographed, and the trio is well matched together.

The film does suffer from a tendency to cram in every self-destructive piece of negativity and excess that the music-world can muster, but stands up well as a musical vehicle, melodrama aside.

Sparkle plays at the Qwanlin Cinema for two performances only, on Sunday, October 21 at 5:00 pm, and on Monday, October 22 at 7:00 pm, and is rated PG

Brian Eaton is a cinema buff who reviews current films and writes on other film-related topics on a regular basis.