It was just in November when I traveled out to Detroit for a day on the set of Sparkle, Whitney Houston’s posthumous film about music, growing up in church, and finding your way. A remake of the 70’s movie, it is set at the height of the civil rights movement and Motown boom in Detroit, and chronicles a family whose daughters form a singing group—modeled after The Supremes—and their journey to find success in uncertain times. It is apparent that those in charge are dedicated to making the film authentic and successful. American Idol winner Jordin Sparks plays the title character Sparkle, the dark horse in the singing group. Houston, in her anticipated return to the screen, stars as the girls’ mother. Though the plot may feel familiar, after having talked extensively with the cast and crew, it is clear that there is a personality to this story. The film is rooted in family values, and has an elevated, sophisticated tone. More after the jump.
If you haven’t seen the trailer yet, watch it below:
The project was truly fueled by the passions of producer Debra Martin Chase and Houston, who also served as an executive producer. The duo, who had a kindred, almost sisterly relationship, teamed together on The Preacher’s Wife and the TV movie Cinderella. Chase, a tour de force who has been commercially successfully in niche family driven films (The Princess Diaries, The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants), spoke with a fervent but wisely subdued exuberance about the project. The role of Sparkle, she said, was originally set for singer-actress Aaliyah in 2001. Houston said that not only was Aaliyah perfect for the role, but she wanted it “so, so badly.” Aaliyah, who had just finished The Matrix had a three picture deal at Warner Bros. in place, and conveniently, Warners owned the rights to Sparkle, having released Sam O’ Steen’s original in 1976.
The young singer died in a tragic plane crash in August of 2001 days before, Houston explained, she was about to meet with the director of the film. With their star gone, the project got shelved and for a number of years after, it was simply “too painful” to discuss, Houston said. Chase said the idea of the movie popped up again at a dinner last year with a Sony executive, who said if she could get the rights, she would get a greenlight.
With the project now at Sony, the producers, stars, and crew gave the distinct impression of the tone they are setting out to achieve in this film. The movie will be a story that features music predominantly, but will be less in the vein of a strict musical. R. Kelly has done the score, and both Sparks and Houston have original songs. As one young cast member noted, “People don’t go out and buy CDs anymore. But this is the type of soundtrack you will go out and buy.”
One of the more elucidating conversations on set was with members of the art department—including Academy Award nominated costume designer Ruth Carter, as well as a member of the hair and makeup department. They explained that the aesthetic of the film pays homage to the decade, but does so with an editorial, sophisticated approach. Hair will be modeled with tribute to Vidal Sassoon and Brigitte Bardot. Though a conventional plot, the film seems to be making no compromises to talk down to the audience. The girls develop their vocal talent in church, and Houston stressed that this film is about a family, though not necessarily pitched to young children. Chase said the film will have a PG-13 rating—indeed it delves into the tribulations of the eldest daughter, played by the captivating Carmen Ejogo (Away We Go) in her foray into Detroit’s drug scene. In fact, costume aficionado Carter said the film is like the 1991 musical drama Five Heartbeats meets Casino.
Salim Akil (Jumping the Broom) directs a script from his wife, Mara Brock Akil. Mrs. Akil previously was a producer on the two successful television series Girlfriends and Moesha. As partners, both Houston and Chase, and the Akils are power-teams who have nuanced their tone and style, and the film seems sure of its footing.
After conversations with those involved—which, took place in the Iroquois Avenue Christ Lutheran Church where a majority of scenes were filmed—I was struck by the sense of connectedness in the cast and crew. It is a story with roots in faith, and it is a project that has withstood because of the faith of the producers. All that were there distinctly gave off the impression of being wed to the script, to the civil rights backstory, and to their belief in the project. Needless to say, all were honored and exuded a sense of humility at working with Whitney Houston. With Houston’s passing, the film will certainly become a landmark, but from my visit to the set, the film already seemed noteworthy and special already.
Finally, if you missed our on set interview with Whitney Houston and producer Debra Martin Chase, click here.
Look for more interviews with the cast in the coming days.