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Jordin Sparks portrays a bland main character we’re supposed to find relatable. However, audiences will see a surprising surge of interest and reality in the supporting cast.
Three women of humble upbringing dream of being star musicians and actually have the talent to make it. When their Motown style is discovered in an underground club, they catch the eye of a slick executive who finances their way to the top. Fame has its costs, however, and the women’s bonds are tested as they become embroiled in abusive relationships, drug excesses, and the pressure to perform. The women must hold tight to their dreams if they want to achieve the stardom they’ve always craved.
Sound familiar? It’s the romanticized, fictionalized story of The Supremes, which has inspired its fair share of Hollywood movies and our general impression of Motown and the recording business as a whole. It’s also the plot of “Sparkle,” Jordin Sparks’ debut film and the final appearance of Whitney Houston before her death.
Sparkle’s reliance on her boyfriend for her success takes away a lot of this movie’s 'you can do it' message. But at least the other two sisters are realistic and represent a more complex treatment of the lives of women.
“Sparkle” features three sisters with very disparate personalities. Main character Sparkle (yes, her name is actually Sparkle; that’s how you know we’re supposed to root for her) has a great talent for singing and songwriting, but she’s timid, mousy, and afraid of defying her overprotective mother. Older sister Sister (yes, they actually call her Sister—see a pattern here?) is beautiful and magnetic with great stage presence, but she’s sensitive about her age and suffers in a relationship with a wealthy but abusive fiancé. Youngest sister Dee is independent and sensible, and she’s only performing on stage with her sisters to earn the money for med school.
Sister and Dee are wonderful characters to watch. Sister’s descent into abuse and addiction is a painfully realistic portrayal of many battered women, though Sister always keeps her agency and never becomes a completely powerless victim. And I have absolutely nothing negative to say about Dee; cheering for her gave me my happiest moments during this movie. She has ambitious goals to improve both herself and her life, and she pursues those goals by her own volition without the help of any man.
The same cannot be said for Sparkle, our main character whose journey to stardom is supposed to inspire girls to achieve their dreams. However, Sparkle’s personality is so underdeveloped and her decisions so unexplained that it’s difficult to see oneself in her struggle; she’s hardly more than a voicebox for the movie’s songs. Moreover, her first big break—and all of her success thereafter—comes from the urging, planning, financing, and managing of her crush and sometimes boyfriend Stix.
A boyfriend who, it should be stated, first showed interest in Sparkle only because he wanted to meet and promote her more stage-friendly older sister.
Sparkle’s reliance on her boyfriend for her success takes away a lot of this movie’s “you can do it” message. But at least the other two sisters are realistic and represent a more complex treatment of the lives of women.
Men’s lives in this film are just as accurate. Two men in particular—two of Sister’s boyfriends—demonstrate an interesting phenomenon in men’s relationships with women.
Levi is a hard-working everyman who’s taken with Sister’s beauty, and he’s resolved to earn her affection. Alas, while he’s taking her out on a discount date (the only kind he can afford), he’s humiliated by the wealthy and famous comedian Satin. Levi may be in love with Sister, but Sister is in love with Satin’s money, and the humiliation keeps coming as Sister becomes Satin’s fiancée.
One might expect Levi to go to Sister and plead for her affection, or at least demand to know why he got dumped. Instead, Levi starts pretending to be rich and well-known in front of Satin, posturing for his rival’s respect. As the tension wears on, Sister is completely forgotten, and the real relationship is the hate-mance between Levi and Satin. Neither of them are concerned for what she wants or thinks; it’s the opinion of other men that really matters.
The sad thing is, Levi and Satin’s dynamic is true to life more often than not. So is Sister’s downward spiral and experience with abuse. With the exception of Sparkle’s arc, this movie deals very realistically with women’s experiences.
Now if only the movie was named “Sister.” Or “Levi and Satin: A Love Story.”