'Star':' Lee Daniels' girl-group drama mixes grit and glitz

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From left, Jude Demorest, Ryan Destiny and Brittany O'Grady in the special premiere of STAR.

What does it take to become a star?

For the fiercely ambitious title character (Jude Demorest) in Star, Fox's new music-fueled drama from Empire's Lee Daniels,  it starts with a first name, bestowed on Star by a mother whose own hopes of fame were long ago derailed by drugs.

Like Empire -- whose midseason finale moves to 8 p.m. Wednesday to provide the new show's lead-in -- Star isn't meant to be subtle.

It's meant to make you care what happens next: to Star and her long-lost half-sister, Simone (Brittany O'Grady), who've grown up unloved in foster homes; to the girl group they're forming with Alexandra (Ryan Destiny), the polished young songwriter Star met on Instagram; and to the adults, played by Queen Latifah and Benjamin Bratt, who are about to go to war for the girls' futures, and maybe their souls.

The three episodes I've seen are, like Star herself, a little rough, with a tangle of plotlines and some clunky dialogue. But there is plenty to care about, even if I'm not convinced this girl group has what it takes. If some characters so far seem less than fully realized, it may be because people with Star and Simone's backstories mostly appear on network TV as crime procedurals' victims-of-the-week, not heroines.

Of the younger players, O'Grady does the most with the damaged Simone, whose need to belong somewhere, to someone, is at least as great as Star's is to belong to the world.

West Philadelphia's Daniels directed the pilot, which he wrote with cocreator Tom Donaghy. Star is introduced with a voice-over from Queen Latifah, whose character, Carlotta, we won't meet until later in the episode. Though it sounds as if she may be speaking from a future in which Star has already made it, the story is set in a present day in which Star and Simone, at least, are starting from the bottom.

Alexandra is another story. The daughter of a musical superstar (guest star Lenny Kravitz), she's in search of something she perceives as more genuine than her father's recent work. She all too readily agrees to join Star and Simone on a road trip to Atlanta to find Carlotta, their godmother, and launch their careers as a trio.

Three seasons in to chronicling Empire's lifestyles of the rich and famous Lyon family, Daniels, too, seems to be looking for something a bit grittier, without totally abandoning the glitz. (Empire, meanwhile, has deepened its storytelling beyond that of most prime-time soaps, with flashbacks to the less-privileged youths of its main characters.)

Star breaks out at least once an episode in a full-scale production number, but when it happens, I'm pretty sure it's a character's daydream. So don't be surprised when the strip club where Star first encounters a prospective talent manager named Jahil (Bratt) turns out to have the most elaborately choreographed number in go-go-dancer history.

Just as Taraji P. Henson is the best reason to watch Empire, Queen Latifah is the true star of Star. Carlotta, besides running a beauty salon, owning a dizzying collection of wigs, and coming with her own cautionary tale of a backstory, happens to possess the voice of Queen Latifah.

Her wayward goddaughters should be so lucky. 

 


Star. 9 p.m. Wednesday, Fox.