"I don't think of it as a comeback. I don’t think of it as a pressure. I think of it as a gift God gave me to contribute to a cast of people who are working as hard if not harder than I." –Whitney Houston
Though the new remake of the 1976 cult classic musical Sparkle
would come to be overshadowed by the untimely death of its star/producer Whitney Houston in February of 2012, the set of the film in Detroit, Michigan on November 1st, 2011 couldn't have had a more positive, electric atmosphere.
Houston was a big part of that, and as she sat down to discuss the role, her first feature film since 1996's The Preacher's Wife
she seemed not only in tune with that atmosphere but seemed to be generating a great deal of the good vibes herself, as relayed by her co-star, former "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks.
"I knew she was executive producing, that she would be involved in the project and I would see her around and be able to say hi," explained Sparks. "Then I heard she was gonna be playing my mom and was like, 'Could this get any better?' It's been so exciting! She's such a riot. It's just been so fun to be around her because for the past two weeks we've done a lot of scenes together and she's so funny. She's definitely going to make a lot of people happy. She has millions upon millions of fans and they're going to be very happy to see how she is in this movie, as well as the people who doubt she can do it will be surprised as well."
In the film Sparks plays the title role of Sparkle, a young singer in a church gospel choir that meets and falls in love with a music producer named Stix (Derek Luke), who helps turn her and her two sisters into a Supremes-esque girl group known as Sister & the Sisters during the Motown era of the 1960's. The original featured Irene Cara as Sparkle and "Miami Vice" star Philip Michael Thomas as Stix, and took place in 1950's Harlem. For Houston and a whole generation, the film was a major inspiration, with songs like "Giving Him Something He Can Feel" (later covered by En Vogue) becoming cultural touchstones.
"This was a positive reinforcement for young African American women," said Houston of the original Sparkle
. "For anyone who wanted to pursue their dream and present their gifts it just appealed to me. I would go every Saturday for four months straight watch the matinee to the evening show. I would just never let go of it. Fifteen years later Debra [Martin Chase] and I were talking and I said, 'Debra, have you ever looked at 'Sparkle'?' She said, 'Wow, great project.' Sony picked it up, they moved some folks out, moved some folks in. As the cast came together it worked out perfectly."
Houston is referring to R&B singer Aaliyah, who had originally been cast back in the early 2000s in the lead role before she was tragically killed in a plane crash. The project languished until Debra Martin Chase revived it in recent years.
"Nobody wanted to touch it for a few years," said Chase. "We stayed on it, we'd keep in touch about it, and a few years ago we took it to Sony. The story in general has been updated. It's 1968 Detroit, and we've infused it with some modern themes, some timeless themes. But who could be Sparkle?"
Jordin Sparks proved to be the key missing piece of the puzzle, explaining "I was kinda just like, 'I'm playing Sparkle?' and they're like 'Yep' and I was like 'Okay!' (laughs) I just prayed and prayed because you never know how people were going to be when you first meet them. I never did a movie before so I didn't really know how to prepare. I read the script over and over. I really loved it, so it wasn't hard. I wanted to make sure I knew my lines and then trying to figure out, with the emotion, how I would respond and then taking a step backwards and try and figure out how she would because we're very similar yet very different at the same time."
Part of Houston's strategy to help the movie connect to a wide family audience was to add a new layer of spirituality to the story.
"What you will find in this version is we have a foundation," explained Houston. "We start in church, which is different from the original. We had no idea where the girls actually came from, so we twisted it a little bit so we know where they came from, which is starting off singing gospel."
Co-star Omari Hardwick, who plays Levi, claimed that Houston carried over that spirituality throughout the shooting process.
"There's been prayers prior to scenes, which I've never gone through on a set before," said Hardwick. "Whitney led a prayer before a scene we shot for ten hours, she led a prayer that set off the day."
Hardwick and Luke provided a much-needed injection of manpower to the female-centric project. A short scene we observed while on set involved Luke meeting with the girls in their home, unbeknownst to their mother Emma (Houston), and then darting out the window before the stern matriarch arrives.
"It started with Derek and I, for me," said Hardwick. "We had worked together on 'Miracle at St. Anna' in Italy, the Spike Lee piece. We roommated, we were bunkmates during the training period, and that was testosterone filled. The men in that movie, ironically, we all see each other at auditions. In Spike Lee fashion he threw us all in the same movie. A lot of people were trying to figure out how we fit, so Derek and I didn't get to connect in Italy. On this project, because it was so estrogen-filled, it allowed Derek and I the freedom to not put on airs, to just show up and serve the women. I remember feeling the same way about 'For Colored Girls,' just serve them.
"There's been that thing of slowly tread, deal with all the emotions that come from the women in the best way possible, but be the men of the project. That sorta helped. Whitney, being the godmother of it all, has allowed us to do that."
This being Whitney Houston, it was a forgone conclusion that she would get to sing in the picture, especially since her character Emma is supposed to be a faded former songstress.
"I am contributing to the soundtrack," confirmed Huston. "Robert Kelly is doing the soundtrack. Jordin has some great material on there, we're compiling the material as we speak."
"As a singer, Whitney is through the atmosphere," said Sparks of her idol. "She is just somebody that you aspire to want to sing like. I remember with Whitney and Mariah and everybody just trying to mimic their singing."
"In the movie Sparkle goes through a lot of adversity," added Sparks. "She deals with insecurities in herself and trying to overcome that and then also being around with her family and seeing them go through things as well. Everybody's changing, and everybody goes through stuff like that whether it's an entertainer or one of you guys. Everybody goes through that and has a personal struggle, and I think a lot of people are going to relate to that. I think a lot of young girls or young men trying to break into the industry, even though this is based in the 60s, just seeing that it takes a lot of hard work, dedication and sacrifice.
"They're gonna be able to relate to the girls, and the mothers are gonna relate to Whitney… she's great you guys, she's so awesome, it's gonna be so good. They're gonna be able to relate to Sparkle because she's got that slight insecurity about herself and you see her grow and blossom. I'm hoping that when people walk away they say, 'Okay, if she can overcome stuff, if she can find it in herself to do something after all that just happened I can do it too, and I'll be okay too.'"
Walking through the affluent suburb of Detroit lined with '60's era cars that night, and feeling all the joy wrapped up in this endeavor, it never occurred to anyone that such a promising film would be hit with the sadness of Houston's passing. The Bodyguard
actress, who was the most awarded female singer of all-time, clearly took her job seriously and in stride.
"I have two jobs and executive of the soundtrack. I've done it before," surmised Houston. "In my life it was not that I want to be an entertainer, it's in my family bloodline. I can’t help it. It is something that God said 'This is what you do.' It's in me. To me it's not a comeback, it's innate, it's natural."
opens everywhere on August 17th. Special thanks to Sony for allowing us on set, and to Miss. Houston for being so gracious during her time with us.
You can watch the new trailer for the film by clicking here