It was more than 30 years ago that the original musical Sparkle debuted in theaters. People were introduced to the humble, shy girl optimistically named Sparkle with a talent that went beyond the social ills of her Harlem upbringing in the late '50s. The classic songs and climatic clashes had propelled the film into cult status and when word of a remake was announced in 2010, those same fans were a bit apprehensive about the potential blemishing of their beloved soul musical. But a tenacious producer and loyal fan of the film Whitney Houston was determined to make it happen. This weekend a reimagined Sparkle opens to theaters nationwide and stars of the current film are excited for the project Houston was so passionate about prior to her death earlier this year. In the updated film, Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) is a songwriter with big dreams but no aspirations. Things change when her eldest sister "Sister" (Carmen Ejogo) agrees to perform her song at a local amateur night. Stix (Derek Luke) a wannabe producer reaches out to Sparkle and her sister and encourage their third, Dolores (Tika Sumpter) to round out the trio. The group rise and fall quickly as the realities of success result in conflicts with their born-again mother Emma, a former singer that's all too aware of the industry pitfalls.
Sparks shared she first saw the original months prior to the audition for the role but immediately identified with the character originally played by Irene Cara during a recent press junket along with Sumpter at the Four Seasons in Atlanta.
"I fell in love with it, says Sparks. "I love anything musical and was completely drawn in. I loved the characters and how it says 'Sparkle' but it's a lot grittier and darker than you think its going to be and I love that twist. I really loved the humbleness and meekness that Irene Cara brought to the character and in the best way that I could, I wanted to bring that to the character I was played. There's a lot of me in Sparkle, so I related to her on a lot of levels."
Sparks, the sixth season winner of American Idol plays the title character. Since her Idol win Sparks has recording a platinum single artist with her duet with Chris Brown "No Air", released two albums: Jordin Sparks and Battlefield. Aside from music, Sparks launched a clothing line, had a stint on Broadway in "In The Heights" and had a few television appearances on teen TV shows The Suite Life On Deck and Big Time Rushas herself, but Sparkle is her first feature role and admits a little nervousness assuming this beloved role as her big screen debut.
"I had such a big task ahead of me," says Sparks. "Sparkle is this loved character and so many girls related to her and Whitney had actually seen this film over and over again, I cannot walk in here and be horrible. It was scary." She accredits the cast for helping her with the role and overcoming her doubts. "They were so great for me. They all gave so much which in turn made me give more."
Her co-star Sumpter, a model and most notably known for her roles on The Gameand Gossip Girl had not seen Sparkle before receiving the role, but says her older siblings were "Obsessed" with the film and reminded her of how beloved it was, which brought about a different set of challenges for her developing Sparkle's sister Dolores (Dee).
"[Dee] didn't have a real voice in the first one so there wasn't anything to build upon, " she explains. " But Mara Brock Akil wrote an amazing script that I had to create a new character from sort of. It wasn't challenging it was fun, and now I feel there's a voice to her - you get to know her dreams and what she stands for." Sumpter has worked with Akil while starring on BET's The Game where she writes and produces the show.
The project was a labor of love for the late Whitney Houston who plays Sparks and Sumpter's mother in the film, Emma, and also served as one of the film's executive producers. It took more than ten years to bring the remake to the big screen. Sparks and Sumpter recall fondly what it was like working with Houston on the project.
"My leg was shaking underneath the table at the table read," Says Sumpter but recalls Houston as warm and generous on set. "She wanted to get to know all of us on a genuine level. She was always there to encourage us. She really wanted all of us to have our moments."
Sparks describes, "When Whitney walked in, we all sat up a little straighter. I was a little intimidated because it was Whitney Houston standing here right now. But she made us all comfortable because she didn't have to be like that - she could have been a diva, she was really sweet." During filming, Sparks received encouragement from her idol that helped her through her scenes. "She was just this ray of light. She told me, 'Believe in your gift. Believe in the talent you have.' That stuck with me. I will never forget that."
Houston's death occurred mere hours before she and Sparks were to embark on their first promotional event for the film together at Clive Davis' red carpet Grammy party. Sparks describes the shocking news and coping with the sudden lost as "surreal."
"I was getting ready for the party and my publicist walks in and says "Whitney's gone," and I said, "What do you mean Whitney's gone - you mean she doesn't want to do the carpet, what do you mean? " And she said no, Whitney has passed. And I pretty much lost all thoughts, feelings, movement just everything - I was didn't know what to do. We turned on the TV and it went across the ticker and my phone just started blowing up and I just lost it. I don't think I've cried that hard, ever - it was so unexpected. I couldn't handle it, so I just cut myself off from everything except my family for about a month."
Sumpter was also in LA when the news of Houston's death was reported.
"I had just got off the phone that day with her assistant because we planning on having lunch and my makeup artist was on the phone with her husband and she goes, "No, no, no!" and then says, "Whitney's gone!" I don't know what happened inside but I just said, No it can't be true it must be some stupid rumor. Then I turned on the news and everyone was calling me and I kept saying, "Oh my God" and I just sat there and just cried."
"It was really hard for all of us," says Sparks. "It was so unexpected and the last time we had all seen here was in Detroit when we were filming the movie and we were all just so happy and so excited - she was just this ray of light, so then the next time we seen each other was at the funeral and it was just surreal. We're not all here for this. We were just laughing together at the table, cracking up. Surreal is the only way I can describe it. Whitney gave so much of herself to the people she became close to and to her fans and you give that much to everyone and the whole world just felt like it stopped for a minute."
As the actors prepare for the upcoming release of the film, memories of Houston dominate the conversations between them. Discussing the environment on set Sparks recalls a fond memory of Houston during a late night shoot.
"We were chilling and I had my iPod and 'Teach me how to dougie' was on, so I just got up and started dancing. Then Tika got up and Carmen and everybody from hair and makeup was up and just having a blast because it was late and feeling squirrelly and trying to keep our energy up and Whitney walks in. She says, "Whats that?" So we explained the song and demonstrate the dance and she said, "Well uh ... show me!" She comes in and just started dancing with us and it was so fun because she was so fun-loving like that, she had the greatest sense of humor and she just wanted to genuinely get to know all of us."
Sumpter concurs. "She could have went to her trailer after shoots saying, "Peace out," but never. She came to set. As executive producer she didn't have to come to set if she didn't want to but she was always there to encourage us. If you were messing with your dress, she would say, "You look great," I love that about Whitney, because she could have been a total Diva if she wanted to - a superstar wanting us to have moments is major."
The memories make the loss bearable it seems for Sparks. "It's been really fun talking about all the memories we've had because sometimes when talking about her - something she said or did, and I feel like she's going to walk through the room."
Houston and her love child Sparkle influenced Sparks beyond acting. The songs and sounds from Mayfield's original soundtrack and songs on the current film's playlist have inspired her to consider exploring and expanding beyond her current pop-influenced, rhythm and blues repertoire.
"Last year I was in this state of limbo, things were happening with my label and I had just left my management so there was no one here to help me go get something so I was sitting there thinking, "Is this it?" Then Sparkle fell into my lap and it was the perfect opportunity. It gave me the chance to do something new like acting as well as get out new music for my fans so it was really perfect. But stylistically it was something different ... something I hadn't done before and really inspired me. I was really excited because I grew up on Mariah and Whitney and Celine and Christina, so my sound right now is I want to do early Mariah, early Whitney and it won't be weird now which it could have been if not for this movie," says Sparks.
Both Sparks and Sumpter are optimistic about the wide release of the film on August 17 and believe it will appeal to fans of the original and a new, younger audience. "Sparkle is a movie that will touch people from all walks of life with its universal themes of family, struggles, love and dreams."
Sparks is currently working on her second feature film, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, starring Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, Jeffrey Wright, and Anthony Mackie. The film is scheduled for release in 2013.