Sparks, Ejogo relight '70s cult classic

DIGGING into a conversation with two stars of "Sparkle" - Jordin Sparks and Carmen Ejogo - is a delicate thing.

The musical performances are rousing, riveting. The slick cinematography and period-perfect costumes/art direction of the shot-in-Motown film drama really take you back, evoke an era. Good reasons for a talent interviewer to be upbeat. If only . . .

"Sparkle" relates the ups-'n'-downs tale of a fictionalized, sisterly singing/songwriting trio kinda like the Supremes. The British-born (yet amazingly accent-free on screen) Ejogo plays the lead, a fashion-forward, Diana Ross-style character with a dark, destructive side who's nicknamed Sister. Ross was a persona "I adored as a girl," Ejogo related in a very English voice.

In her sweet-'n'-shy film debut, "American Idol" season 6 winner Jordin Sparks plays the title character - quite a bit of fateful casting, she agreed, given her name and that "when they first started talking about remaking this film, 10 years ago, I was 12 and hardly suited to the role."

Sparkle is the songwriter/creator of the group who then emerges from the shadows and group dysfunction to become a creative force and solo star. The best real-world comparison here is to "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" composer-turned-performer Valerie Simpson, blended with a bit of the Effie character from the fictionalized "Dreamgirls" (played on screen by another "American Idol" discovery, Jennifer Hudson).

But as much as the "Sparkle" women grabbed and charmed me, there's no avoiding the glum, "torn from the news headlines" element to this modern morality play, as executive-produced and also starring Whitney Houston in what was "intended to be her comeback," said Ejogo.

Houston's sudden, unexpected drowning (Feb. 11) under the influence of cocaine "hit me like a ton of bricks," recalled Sparks in our separate chat. "I was on my way to meet her on the red carpet at the Clive Davis Grammy party, to do our little bit of 'Sparkle' pre-promotion, when I found out. It still hits me in waves."

On screen, Houston plays the girls' mom, a church-centered, pop-music-despising, buttoned-up woman with her own sordid past. She knows and fears the corruption that the world could wreak on her daughters and shuns Sister for taking up with an acerbic, self-loathing comedian (played by Mike Epps) who turns out to be a drug-pushing and physically abusive creep. Remind you of anyone, Bobby Brown followers?

Oh, and as if all that's not enough, there's a second elephant loose in the room threatening to trample everything in sight - the memories of the original 1976 "Sparkle" (starring Lonette McKee as Sister and Irene Cara as Sparkle), which achieved cult status in the era of "blaxploitation" movies and generated a dynamite songs from the "Sparkle" (quasi) soundtrack album sung by Aretha Franklin.

The new "Sparkle" retains four of the original Curtis Mayfield tunes (the girl group numbers) but resets some character traits and the location from Harlem of the 1950s to Detroit of the '60s, when the Motown sound and look were exploding worldwide.

Room has also been made for Houston to shine specially bright in a church-service rendering of "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" and for Sparkle to come into her own at film's end with a trio of auto-tuned-up R. Kelly numbers. "Celebrate," with a vocal assist by and big shout-out to Houston, is the one getting the radio push.

Ejogo said she intentionally avoided watching the original, "for fear of being influenced" by McKee's performance. Sparks said she sought out and watched the original "when I first heard they were remaking it, but never imagined getting the title part" - which finally became hers, four auditions later.

"We've got some hard-core fans [of "Sparkle"] out there, for sure," noted Ejogo with a nervous laugh. "They warned me, 'You better not mess this up.' I think they'll be very happy. We were so respectful that the movie is a classic . . . but we wanted to depart enough so we could create our own classic." And one, she hopes, that "with major studio support" will reach a much broader, mainstream audience akin to that other predominantly black-cast but "universally appealing" movie-musical about a Motown girl group, "Dreamgirls."

Sparks said she was totally supported by and in awe of Houston on the film set. "We all sat up straighter when she walked in for the first reading. She wanted us all to shine, was so supportive and like a mother to me. She'd tell me, 'Believe in the gift you have.' I was comfortable with the singing and the dancing, but out of my element in the acting. So she'd share what it was like her first time making a movie, playing opposite Kevin Costner in 'The Bodyguard.' " Which worked out quite nicely, thanks.

Ejogo believes her on-screen, downbeat character was intentionally focused by Houston (as the film's executive producer) as a stand-in for herself and a "gift" to the world. She also contended that the ultimate message and takeaway from the movie is a "believe in yourself" positive.

"If she was alive, Whitney would be talking about the fact there are parallels to my character and hers. She wasn't getting into it thinking, 'Will anyone notice that Sister has a drug problem and chooses a toxic relationship?'

"That was part of the great gift about Whitney. There was a generosity about her that I don't think is fully understood by people who didn't get to meet her personally," added Ejogo. "There was an honesty about the way she lived. It was messy. It was ups and downs. But she was a giver in that way. She was vulnerable in a way that is really rare. And frankly, I have yet to meet somebody who is uber-uber-creative as she was that's flatline boring in life. It's just how it goes. It's complicated to be that creative, I think."