It isn't quite the 2012 cinematic version of "Dreamgirls" but it's close enough.
If you want to see, though, just how terribly sad the substance-related death of Whitney Houston was on Grammy weekend, you'll have to see "Sparkle." It would, for sure, have been her comeback movie. You could have guaranteed much talk about the the fade of her once-bursting, blooming beauty and the booze and crackpipe roughening of her voice.
But when, in her big musical number, she does the best she can with the voice she's got and sings "His Eye is On the Sparrow" in a church after a family tragedy, she owns the movie and she owns the audience. There would have been a new Houston after this movie -- no longer the gorgeous star whose voice and power ballad delivery thrilled the world and inspired thousands of soundalikes and wannabes, but an actress, a survivalist and very much a cinematic and musical force to be reckoned with.
It wasn't to be.
You can't get around the facts here, just as you couldn't on Grammy night when the young, beautiful wondervoice of the show was going to belong to someone else appointed by Clive Davis as "the new Whitney Houston." The old one was going to be audience wreckage, listening while someone else's beauty dazzled the audience and the camera and hit goosebump high notes.
Instead, she reportedly drank and drugged in her hotel, had a heart attack and slid under the warm bathwater into eternity.
"Sparkle" -- a remake of a 1976 film with Curtis Mayfield music that was a pre-"Dreamgirls" fictional version of the Supremes -- is a good summer tear-jerker that takes the star focus off the male half of an aspirant relationship (Philip Michael Thomas, originally) and puts it square on the shoulders of one of the new Whitneys that have been disgorged weekly by "American Idol" -- Jordin Sparks.
There'll be no Oscar at the end of this rainbow as there was for Jennifer Hudson's showstopping electrification of the "Dreamgirls" movie (just as, on stage, her predocessor Jennifer Holliday had so memorably jolted and rocked the house on Broadway).
But Sparks is earnest and lovely and lovable as Sparkle, the music-besotted songwiting sister of the Williams clan who's so afraid to take the stage alone she hides as a slinky backup singer for her ultra-sleek and worldly sister (Carmen Ejogo, the major arrival performance here by many lights).
In this fictionalization of the Supremes tale, they're really sisters fleeing the home of the forbidding, churchgoing Big Mama (Houston) who insists on huge Saturday night curlers in her offspring's hair to get the girls ready for church Sunday morning.
Instead, the girls slip out of the house Saturday night, go clubbing and perform as much as possible in the joints that have sprung up in 1968 Detroit in an era when Berry Gordy's Motown had recalibrated R&B and his headlining act The Supremes publicly reimagined black womanhood.
Showbiz films are fueled by cliches and this one's no different. There's even a drug-pushing snake-in-the-grass male around. In the original, he was a drug lord, in this 2012 showbiz version he's a slimy nightclub version of a Nipsy Russell/Slappy White comic who tells white audiences all the stereotyping jokes they could want to hear and, in private, feeds white powder to the nostrils of his latest bed partners.
He brings a showbiz upgrade to the sisters. He also brings periodic beatings to the face of the would-be Diana at the center of the sister act.
It's showbiz melodrama and soap opera, as old as the hills, but not camp mockery a la "Rock of Ages." It's affecting about a world that enraptures those so in love with performing music that they never notice the view as they ascend.
It's the old-fashioned tale, of course, of Sparkle's personal empowerment -- mega-kitsch to be sure but performed with enough conviction and well-enough directed by Salim Akil (writer of "Drylongso" and TV's "The Game") to rock the house and moisten the eye.
None of the music, old or new (R. Kelly) is all that great but none is terrible either.
Would it have been as good if the film hadn't been such a long-term Houston project -- the comeback film that she couldn't have survived intact even if she'd lived? Probably not.
This, to be sure, would have been a major second act in Houston's terribly troubled life, the one where she could play a woman on screen who says at one point to her daughters "I passed out a few times sure but you never saw me lying in my own vomit."
She couldn't survive it. The film gave the role of a woman in recovery to a star who could never quite get there herself.
Her second life, now, will only happen on film. How very sad indeed.
3 stars (out of 4) †††
STARRING: Jordin Sparks, Whitney Houston, Mike Epps, Carmen Ejogo, Tika Sumpter, Cee-Lo Green, Michael Beach †††
DIRECTOR: Salim Akil †††
RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes †††
RATING: PG-13 for pervasive language including sexual references, graphic nudity, some violence and drug content. †††
THE LOWDOWN: Remake of the 1976 film about the tragedies and triumphs of a girl group in 1968 Detroit.