Sparkle: Making of Whitney Houston’s Last Film

Starring Jordin Sparks, Whitney Houston, Mike Epps, CeeLo Green, Carmen Ejogo, “Sparkle” arrives in theaters August 17.

“Sparkle” is the story of three sisters who love each other fiercely, who each have their own dreams and ambitions, and who form a girl group as a way of capitalizing on the Motown sound sweeping the nation. And it looks like they’re going to take the music world by storm. But looming over them is the shadow of a strong mother who isn’t necessarily supportive of that dream, and hard realities about the spotlight that threaten to tear at the fabric of their tightly knit family.

Ode to 1976 Film
This new version of “Sparkle” is an ode to the genius of the original 1976 movie, modified to the music, fashion, lingo and historical affects of the 1960s, while maintaining the emotional clarity and aspirational spirit of the earlier classic. The city has been changed to Detroit, the home of “Hit Factory” Motown, and the original struggling single parent is now an upper middle-class family doing very well.

This colorfully imagined, thrillingly acted and musically entertaining film is led by an all-star cast carefully selected to ensure the originality of the movie was preserved, and also to bring a fresh perspective with new dimensions, twists and turns.

Houston’s Last Film
The cast starring in this music-themed drama includes Grammy-nominated, Platinum recording artist Jordin Sparks, multiple Grammy Award Winner Whitney Houston in her last film performance, Derek Luke, Mike Epps, Carmen Ejogo, Tika Sumpter, Omari Hardwick and Grammy Award Winner CeeLo Green.

Salim Akil directed the film from a screenplay by Mara Brock Akil and a story by Joel Schumacher and Howard Rosenman. Just like the story of Sparkle herself in the movie, the journey of “Sparkle” to the screen was one of patience and seizing the moment. Producer Debra Martin Chase, along with executive producer Whitney Houston, had been working for over 12 years to remake the beloved 1976 music drama. Chase’s own dream to see “Sparkle” on the big screen again finally came to fruition when the movie came up in conversation at a casual dinner with Sony chairman Michael Lynton.

At the time, “Jumping the Broom” was set for release, and the praises of that film’s director, Salim Akil, were being widely sung. “Jumping the Broom” producer, Bishop T.D. Jakes was also being praised for the film, and thus was brought on board with Akil. In reimagining “Sparkle,” Akil made the key decision to shift the era from 1950s Harlem – the setting of the original – to Detroit in 1968, when the music of Motown was dominant, fashion was making waves, and the winds of social change were beginning to blow. To bring about this new “Sparkle,” Akil asked his wife Mara Brock Akil to write the screenplay, something that particularly thrilled producer Debra Martin Chase.

Caught in the Middle
Identified as the baby of the family, Sparkle is continuously caught in the middle of her two sisters Delores and Sister as she does her best to keep the peace between the two. However, there is a sense of confidence that consumes her when she stands up for herself from time to time amongst the nitpicking and nagging brought on by her sisters.

That confidence in her abilities must contend with the expectations brought upon by the type of family she comes from, and it creates an internal conflict when it comes to pursuing her dream as an individual. It was a relief, then, when Jordin Sparks was cast. Her natural gifts as a singer, coupled with her newness as a movie lead, made for the perfect combination in “Sparkle.” Sparkle’s need to make everyone else happy is what eventually starts to hold down her ambition to be a music star.

Sometimes the biggest impediment to young people realizing their dreams is a steadfast parent, and in Emma, the mother of Sparkle, Delores and Sister, the movie had one of its most complex characters. Emma was a singer back in her day and is familiar with the showbiz scene. After a rough life in the business, she is now comfortably settled with her daughters and is now raising them in a religious atmosphere where gospel singing is the extent of the family’s cultural life, and the allure of modern music is frowned upon.

Emma had to be a force to be reckoned with on screen, and it was up to the movie’s executive producer — Grammy-winning legend and movie star Whitney Houston – to embody the strength, stubbornness and love that came from Emma. Tragically, it would be Houston’s last performance on screen.

Emma’s oldest daughter is Tammy, who goes by “Sister.” To play her, the filmmakers went to the talented British actress Carmen Ejogo, who brought the requisite silkiness and forthrightness the part required. For the role of Dolores Anderson, known as Dee, the filmmakers chose Tika Sumpter, who relished the chance to flesh out a character that remained in the background in the original film.

The men in the Anderson women’s lives are a crucial component to the chemistry of “Sparkle,” because they represent the sisters’ opportunities for romance and success, and the pitfalls when they take their eye off their dreams. When it came to casting Stix, the aspiring musical impresario who feels a deep connection to Sparkle’s talent and personality – and wants to build the sisters into a top-drawer group – the search rested when Derek Luke came along.

Comedian-actor Mike Epps portrays one of the characters from the original film, Satin. A pivotal role, Satin is shown to be a famous comedian of the era whose success with white audiences comes at the expense of stereotypes about African-Americans.

Rounding out this cast are CeeLo Green as Black, and also Omari Hardwick as Levi, Stix’s cousin whose feelings for Sister are at odds with her showbiz ambitions; Michael Beach as Reverend Bryce, family friend to Emma and the girls; and Curtis Armstrong as the record executive who shows an interest in the sisters as a recording act.

The film retains its enriching focus on the consequences of choices and how they affect those we love, while reiterating the importance of family and faith.

Credits

The film was produced by Debra Martin Chase, T.D. Jakes, Salim Akil, Mara Brock Akil, and Curtis Wallace. It was executive produced by Whitney Houston, Howard Rosenman, Gaylyn Fraiche and Avram Butch Kaplan. The director of photography was Anastas Michos, ASC. The production design was by Gary Frutkoff with Terilyn A. Shropshire, A.C.E. as the film editor. The music was by Salaam Remi, and R. Kelly was an executive music consultant. The film’s choreography was by Fatima Robinson, and Ruth E. Carter was the costume designer.

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