Released after her death, the film centers around three songstress sisters who shoot to Motown superstardom during the 1960s.
Houston plays Emma, the girls’ over-bearing and conservative mother who was a former R&B singer. Her character’s past mistakes is a cautionary tale for the singing trio as the maneuver through the dangerous world of fame.
So did Houston’s performance shine through?
Many critics drew connections between the singer’s personal life and the role, applauding Houston’s organic approach to the material.
Here’s what some reviewers said:
Entertainment Weekly: “At times, it’s like a Joan Crawford neurotic-mother fantasy, and the gravelly conviction of Whitney Houston’s performance proves that this could have been the first step not merely in a comeback but in a major re-invention. She had the instincts of a superb character actress.”
The Boston Globe: “Houston didn’t make many films — this was only her fourth — and she wasn’t a natural actor. She spoke too fast, emoted too little, and seemed intimidated by the demands of being larger than life when she couldn’t rely on her voice. This is the first time her singing feels like an afterthought. With her in this part, as a woman who once lived hard and is trying to prevent her daughters from being chewed up and spit out by the music business, Houston embodies powerful, cautionary wisdom. In her fuller carriage and in the cadences of the rasp her voice had acquired, you can see and hear a life lived.”
The A.V. Club: “This is Houston’s last film, and her performance embodies everything right and wrong about Sparkle: It’s a monochrome collection of overprotective mom gestures, but suggests a rainbow of human complexity in a superfluous, show-stopping musical performance.”
The Washington Post: “While Sparkle doesn’t give the audience a lasting memory of Houston’s voice at its most soaring, it does manage to provide a lingering sense of loss, mixed with celebration and grim irony. Houston plays the disapproving mother of a daughter who longs to make it big as a singer; in a role that plays like a cautionary mirror version of Houston’s own fatal battles, she warns against the depredations of an entertainment industry that indulges and exploits young talent just as intently as it nurtures it.
The Los Angeles Times: “In the film Houston sings “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” at an appropriately melodramatic point in the story. It’s a fitting reminder of why Houston, whose voice was coarse-grained but still powerful at the time of filming, became a sensation in the first place.”
The New York Times: “Sparkle is only Houston’s fourth feature film, and she brought to her role a sharper dramatic focus than in her previous screen performances. With her rigid posture and narrowed eyes, Emma is a woman who has seen the light with a vengeance. Her unbending strictness is a form of self-flagellation. As Emma talks in clipped, accelerated sentences, you sense the same fierce defensiveness Houston often put on like armor in interviews during her career. But as hard-nosed as Emma can be, she signals that behind the severity is a protective, unwavering love.”
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