Sparkle: Whitney Houston’s Last Picture Show and Jordin Sparks’ First

Houston plays mother to a trio of Supremes-style girl singers, including American Idol winner Jordin Sparks, in this lively remake of a 1970s favorite

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Stage 6 Films

Emma (Whitney Houston) and Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) in TriStar Pictures' Sparkle.

Sparkle, a glitzy remake of the 1976 music-heavy film, is about three sisters, one a sex kitten called Sister, the second a tough cookie, the last a shy-boots with the uncommon name of Sparkle (American Idol winner Jordin Sparks), trying to make it as a girl group. They go by the name “Sister and the Sisters,” not quite as jazzy as The Supremes, but with a ring to it. They have ample talent and Sister (Carmen Ejogo) could shimmy her way to fame in a heartbeat, but a treacherous man (Mike Epps) leads her astray.

His name is Satin—like Sparkle, a name you might expect to find on a product under your sink—and this silky but dangerous creature feeds poor Sister drugs, beats her and interferes with the trio’s grand ambitions. From the get-go, nobody except Sister likes Satin; the girls’ mother Emma (the late Whitney Houston) loathes him on sight. This year’s Sparkle, like the original (which had the distinction of being written by famed Hollywood player Joel Schumacher when he was a wee thing of 37) is about corruption, the price of physical beauty and triumph against the odds, all stories as old as the hills. Older even than Dreamgirls, which it has much in common with, starting with the setting.

The old Sparkle took place in Harlem in 1958, this one is in Detroit in 1968. They’re very different worlds, Motown dangling tantalizingly in front of Sparkle and her sisters in the remake, while in Harlem 10 years earlier things were more casual. When things didn’t work out with music, cast members departed for the Civil Rights movement or construction jobs “upstate” paying the princely sum of $5 to $10 an hour. Everyone in this Sparkle has more money and better jobs. Epp’s Satin is a comedian who caters to white audiences, a self-described “Sambo,” while the original Satin only had the imagination to be a mobster. Sparkle herself is not just a singer, but a prolific songwriter, who the third sister says “could be the next Smokey Robinson.” (I should use her name, Dolores, since I liked her and Tika Sumpter, the actress playing her, but as the “plain” sister least enchanted with the spotlight, Dolores exists to get the narrative shaft.)

(READ: TIME’s appreciation of Whitney Houston)

I could go on at length about how the original is more desperate, darker and more impressionistic than this slick new version, but let’s get down to business: The biggest distinction between the two films is that the 2012 Sparkle is a cinematic pallbearer, arriving with the burden of Whitney Houston’s drug-related death on its not-intended-to-be-mighty shoulders. Sparkle is Houston’s last film, and her first feature film since 1996’s The Preacher’s Wife. Before she died in February, at 48, Sparkle was being billed as her comeback. Honestly, it could have been: Houston’s voice is rough and raspy, but she is undeniably there in Sparkle, a funny, convincing presence, seemingly reveling in the chance to act. From how much she gives to the performance, you would not suspect drugs would take her within months.

(SEE: Whitney Houston, her life in pictures)

As it stands, the tragedy touching the characters—softened from the 1976 film, director Salim Akil’s (Jumping the Broom) remake swaps one death for one much less heartbreaking—has less impact than the real-life tragedy. The movie was screened for critics a scant 36 hours before its release, which generally suggests a level of insecurity about the product. But Sparkle, while occasionally silly in a way that made a preview audience titter, is decent entertainment. (Although Mr. Akil, avoid slow motion in the future at all costs and hire a better makeup artist for bruising and cuts.) It has nice bursts of comedy, some nifty musical numbers and an appealing cast. Derek Luke, playing Stix, the role originated by Philip Michael Thomas before his Miami Vice days, is adorable as usual. Ejogo is an Angelina Jolie type, all perfect lips, cat eyes and snake hips, a rival for the original Sister, the dazzling Lonette McKee. And Sparks gives an truly poised performance especially considering she, like her fellow American Idol alum Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls, is a novice making her feature film debut.

(READ: James Poniewozik on the mysterious power of American Idol)

So why screen Sparkle so late? Maybe because some of Houston’s dialogue as Emma cuts so eerily close to reality that the studio wasn’t quite sure what kind of response to expect. Emma is a devout churchgoer, who doesn’t even let her younger daughters date, but she had a wild, substance abusing past that included an attempt to make it in the music business herself. It hangs over them all. “Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?” she demands of her daughters. During a fight, Sister reminds her mother of the times she was “laid up in your own vomit” leaving the youthful Sister in charge of  Dolores and Sparkle. My mind flashed to a bleak paparazzi photo of Houston just before she died, out at some party, looking dazed, her bare legs flecked with something that bloggers speculated was vomit.

But while Sparkle can bring on images like that, that’s the viewer’s baggage. I tried to focus instead on watching Houston genuinely enjoying the role. She was never Meryl Streep, but she was, after all, a great performer. Her many fans will likely cherish Sparkle if only because it gives them a last opportunity to see her sing. In terms of narrative, the song is oddly wedged in, an obvious showcase, or perhaps exploitation. It’s a church hymn, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” and she’s obviously not at her prime, but man oh man, the power of even that faded glory. What a shame.

READ: TIME’s review of the original Sparkle.