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Houston's Swan Song Overshadowed by Ejogo's Star-Making Turn
There's an indisputable star of this synthetically watchable 2012 melodrama, and it's neither the late Whitney Houston in her last role nor Season 6 "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks. It's relatively unknown British actress Carmen Ejogo (Maya Rudolph's sister in "Away We Go") who explodes off the screen in the meaty, scene-stealing role of Sister, the hell-raising eldest of a trio of daughters to Emma Anderson, an uptight, church-going woman who raised them on her own. Emma is Houston's supporting role, and while she proves she had the makings of a solid character actress, there is an unfortunate shroud of irony in her presence given her own tragic, tabloid-saturated life was itself a cautionary tale about the lure of drugs in show business. This time in the part Lonette McKee played superbly in the 1976 original, Ejogo inhabits the character living out the nightmare of drug addiction and spousal abuse.
The rest of the movie is mostly by the numbers. It opens in 1968, a decade later than the original movie's story, with Sister and her little sister Sparkle sneaking out to a nightclub headlined by a period- costumed Cee Lo Green in a cameo appearance. Sister vamps her way through an original song by Sparkle, which attracts the attention of an aspiring record producer named Stix. He encourages them to shoot for the big time, so they convince level-headed sister Dee to make it a trio decked out sequins, wigs and false eyelashes in order to become the next Supremes. What struck me is how eerily the three women look like the original Supremes line-up with Sparks resembling Florence Ballard and Ejogo looking like a sultry cross between Diana Ross and Beyoncé. Of course, their newfound success comes with heartache, as Sister takes up with a smooth albeit vicious stand-up comic named Satin, and Sparkle struggles between family devotion and her burgeoning love for Stix.
Naturally Emma is constantly worried that her girls will repeat the same mistakes she made when she tried to make it as a singer only to be spit out by the music industry. That means Houston spends most of her limited screen time either fretting about her family or being self-righteous about her religious convictions. The dinner table scene between her and Ejogo is the movie's best scene laying bare the deep-seeded resentment Sister has for her mother and providing a flash of grief over a line that reminds you how Houston died. The melodrama is laid on pretty thick, especially during Sister's downward spiral, but director Salim Akil ("Jumping the Broom") and his wife, screenwriter Mara Brock Akil, balance it with just enough lighter moments. The songs, of course, are what matters the most, and smartly, Curtis Mayfield's original compositions have been retained with the standouts being "Hooked on Your Love", "Look into Your Heart" and especially "Something He Can Feel" which Ejogo performs with sultry conviction.
The new songs by R. Kelly are not nearly as memorable since they sound too contemporary for the period. Sadly, Houston sings only once in character, the spiritual stand-by, "His Eye Is on the Sparrow", and limited to her lower register, her coarsened voice, while emotionally impactful, is vocally a mere shadow of her once-beautiful pipes. Sparks gets to sing a lot more with a predictably booming voice, and she delivers an unaffected turn in the title role. Mike Epps gives a strong performance as Satin, and his scenes with Ejogo echo similarly volatile scenes in "What's Love Got to Do with It?" As Stix, Derek Luke does much better work than Philip-Michael Thomas in the original. Tika Sumpter provides some memorably defiant moments as Dee, the one sister who could take or leave the music. The movie runs too long at 116 minutes, but between Houston's death and Ejogo's star-making turn, it takes on a greater depth than the musical nostalgic trip it was originally designed to be.
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