It was just in November when a group of journalists and I spent a day at a church in the outskirts of Detroit, where the film Sparkle was shooting. We spent half a day in interviews with the cast until finally it was announced that “Ms. Houston” was here. There are rumors of what charisma is like: Being in Whitney Houston‘s company, the air took on a sharper more pronounced feel, everyone was seemingly in a trance in her presence because it was that absorbing. With warm glowing skin and exquisite features, visually she was arresting, but it was her candor that was so affecting. Equally ready to hand out praise or tough love, she seemed compelled to speak the truth. Her exuberance for the project sprung from her great respect for the civil rights movement (the era in which Sparkle is set), as well as the potential for this film to showcase a beautiful image of African Americans. This is a film, she conveyed, that will make families want to go to the movies. Her charm is one that now in the current landscape of calculated personas, feels antiquated and unmatchable. After a day of interviews, I recall noting what a self-possessed sense of ease Houston had; from both the brief time with her and the conversations with her castmates, she seemed a natural leader who had visibly, and yet quietly, charmed and encouraged the rest of the cast.
Hit the jump for the full interview between Houston (also an executive producer on the film) and Debra Martin Chase, her producing partner on Cindarella and The Preacher’s Wife . They talked about why they wanted to do the project, what it was like for Houston to be in front of the camera again, the soundtrack, and so much more.
As usual, we’re offering you two ways to get this interview: you can either click here for the audio, or the full transcript is below. Sparkle will be released this summer.
WHITNEY HOUSTON: As a young girl, back in the ’70s, I was, you know, into that Black exploitation kind of movie thing. This was…kind of like a positive reinforcement for young African American women, who were becoming young women, and ultimately into full grown women. So, you know it was, it was just: anybody who wanted to pursue their dream or their, their desires, their goals, and present their gifts, it just appealed to me. And I would go every Saturday for like four months straight, and I’d watch the matinee to the evening show. Every Saturday for like three to four months. And I just never, ever let go of it. It’s like, when it was, what, 15 years later, or 20 years later, I said, uh, Deb and I were talking, and I was like, Debra, have you ever looked at Sparkle? And she looked and she was like, wow, great project. Um, we started, what, you go from there.
DEBRA MARTIN CHASE: So we went to—Warner Brothers owns the movie—we went to Warner Brothers and said, you know, we want to make it. And they had just signed a deal—a three picture deal with Aaliyah. So they said, well, if Aaliyah’s interested, when we’ll develop it for her. We were like, great, love Aaliyah, right?
HOUSTON: Love her. Love her.
CHASE: So the first script was written by my dear friend, the late E. Lynn Harris, and we had a blinking green light. And we were gonna shoot, we were gonna try and fit it in right before Matrix Two or right after, which she was supposed to do.
So on that horrible Saturday, she actually was flying, leaving the Bahamas to fly to Los Angeles to have lunch with the director on Tuesday, and thought we would walk out with a green light on the movie. So, it was just, you know, horrible. I mean, it’s unimaginable. [Aaliyah died that day in a plane crash.]
CHASE: So tragic.
CHASE: So then it’s, nobody wanted to touch it for a few years. And then, you know, we talked about it…
HOUSTON: (overlapping) Well we didn’t want to touch it. We were like, that’s it, you know, that was it, for us. I mean, that’s how we felt about it, because she was just so perfect for it.
CHASE: And she loved it.
HOUSTON: Yeah, she wanted it. She wanted it.
CHASE: She, she was, yeah.
HOUSTON: She did, she did.
CHASE: And then, you know, we go back to Warner Brothers and they’d say, well, who’s gonna be Sparkle?
HOUSTON: That was the question.
CHASE: Yeah. We don’t really want to touch it. But you know, we stayed on it. We’d keep in touch about it. And then about two years ago, I was having dinner with Michael Lynton, who’s the chairman of Sony and an old friend, and somehow Sparkle came up. And he said “I’d make that movie”. And I said, “Well you can’t, Warner Brothers owns the rights”. And he said “Well there’s always a deal to be made”. So, here we are.
HOUSTON: Yeah, Sony picked it up. And, um, they moved some folks out and moved some folks in, and they said this is a project. And it just all fit into place. Jordin came, the rest of the cast came, and it was just, it worked out perfectly.
How does it feel to be back in front of the camera after so many years?
HOUSTON: Now that I’m older and, I think more seasoned in this particular form of entertainment, I…after my experiences in life and things like that, you, you become more seasoned, more mature. You maturate in the time of life. It is, it is very…it coincides with my life as a mother. Because now I have three daughters. But I have one daughter that adds up to three for me, as far as I’m concerned (laughs).
Okay, but yeah. I’m comfortable with it, because I am an on-hands mother. And I am a disciplinary mother. And I don’t make idol threats. You know what I’m saying, with my moods. So, basically it was good, it was a good position for me to be in, because, I feel very close to all three of them as my daughters, you know what I’m saying. So, I’m really comfortable with it, at this point. I am.
CHASE: She’s killing it, too. I will say it. You don’t have to say it. But, it’s just, she’s killing it. I mean, it’s really neat.
HOUSTON: We’re having fun. We are, we’re having a great time.
CHASE: We’re having a great time, yeah.
HOUSTON: (overlapping) We’re having a good time. We are. Yeah.
In the original version, Effie didn’t really have a major, major part. In the new version, will you have more of a vocal presence, and will you be singing more? Also, will you be contributing to the soundtrack?
HOUSTON: I am contributing to the soundtrack. Robert Kelly is doing the soundtrack. Jordin has some great, great material on there. We are compiling the material as we speak. Um, what did you say in the beginning, I’m sorry.
I said in the original version, Effie, the mom, she doesn’t have a…
HOUSTON: Well let’s start off with, my name isn’t Effie in this movie. Not in this version. I’m not gonna tell you what it is (laughs). It’ll be fun for you to wait. But it’s not Effie. I didn’t want it to be Effie. I wanted it to be another name. So I chose my name, and they accepted it. And, we all agreed that it was, it was, it was good.
CHASE: Because we’ve updated the characters. You know, the story in general has been updated, even though it, I mean, it’s 1968 Detroit, but we, we’re true to the period but we’ve infused it with some, with some modern themes, some timeless themes. So her character’s much more complex, much more multi dimensional. I mean, Effie was, you know, working for the White folk. [Now] her character has her own history, and she’s evolved to a certain point in her life, and her relationships with her daughters have been influenced by her life experiences, good and bad. So it’s a good, juicy role.
HOUSTON: Yeah. What you will find in this version is that we have a foundation. We start in church, which was different from the original. We had no idea where the girls actually came from, where they got their talent from, their mother couldn’t sing, whatever. So we, we just kind of just twisted it a little bit so we know that the girls have a foundation and where they came from. And it starts off singing gospel. You’ll like that.
Hollywood has seemed to take on a lot of remakes over the last couple of years, and this is kind of like the first remake of a, an African American typecast movie. Do you think this will open the door for us to do more remakes of our classic cinema that we had in the ’60s and ’70s? And my second part of the question is, Whitney, I, I know you said it meant so much to you to go back and forth to the movies, weekend after weekend. Do you see this project doing the same thing for this generation? Maybe some inspiring in a way?
CHASE: Well they’re, they’re tied together, those two questions. And, we certainly hope so. We certainly hope that this is, that this opens the door for more great movies. This is, you know, it’s, it’s a huge little movie. You know? I mean, we’ve got great drama, great characters. Ruth Carter is killing it with the wardrobe.
HOUSTON: (overlapping) She’s phenomenal. Just phenomenal.
CHASE: Phenomenal. We’re filming at the Frank Lloyd Rice House. Salim [Director Salim Akil] has incredible vision. We all are going for it on this. And, you know, what’s unfair for Black movies is that each one has such a huge burden, and we feel that responsibility. We know that if this movie doesn’t, you know, live up to the hype, that if we don’t perform, that it’s gonna be that much harder for other movies to come behind it. So we are embracing it. We’re up for it. Everybody is giving 200%, and that’s why you guys [the journalists] are here! To spread the word, and share our excitement about what we’re doing!
HOUSTON: The grand part of this whole movie is that you will be able to go with your children. Your mothers and fathers will be able to go to the movies with your children to see this movie. It is a family movie. It’s inspiring. It’s encouraging. You see the ups, the downs, the all-arounds, and we still come out all right. We still come out all right.
So, we’re not trying to set a precedence for other Black movies to be done. If so, than God bless it. However, we just want to be able to make it available to families and daughters and mothers and fathers. You know, my daughter goes to the movies and I go, “I’m not gonna see that.” You know what I’m saying? So you know, that’s our goal, for families to be able to go back to the movies together. Mothers and fathers and daughters and sons. It’s a good thing.
I was wondering, you could have taken this movie anywhere. Why was it important to actually film in Detroit and not use another city as the backdrop? Why was it so important for you to come here?
CHASE: Well, you know, the original movie was actually set in the ’50s. And so we wanted to keep it period because there’s an innocence to times past, and when you think about what was the most important period for Black music, you think about, the ’60s and you think about Motown. So this was, creatively, the choice that was the most exciting and honestly, it was helpful that you had better tax incentives, so it was one of those,
HOUSTON: Rare times (laughs)
CHASE: (Laughs) Where, where the creative and the business came together beautifully.
And I have to say, Detroit’s been great to us. I mean, really, it’s been a great time to be here, because of the spirit of the city. But all these incredible venues that we’re shooting at, you know. Cliff Bells and Bakers and, I mean, it’s been fabulous.
CHASE: You know, we’re in a period which is the renaissance of the musical. I think with the popularity of Glee and High School Musical, and on the big screen, Chicago and Hair Spray, people understand the value of it, and Dream Girls, obviously. Because if you do them right, they are an event. Because you have everything, you know. You’ve got incredible songs. You have good stories. You’ve kind of got the whole ball of wax. So we are glad to be a part of it.
So actually, in some senses, if you have the right material—and that’s why you find a lot of the musicals are remakes—because people know they have a following, then it’s actually slightly, slightly easier.
HOUSTON: (Laughs) Just slightly.
You both have mentioned that this is kind of like a Black movie, but Whitney, you have fame and recognition on a much larger scale.
HOUSTON: Yes, thank you. (Laughs) It’s just true.
What’s your pressure like to comeback?
HOUSTON: I don’t think of it as like, as a comeback. I don’t think of it as a pressure. I think of it as, a gift that God gave me, to contribute to a cast of people who are working as hard, if not harder, than I. Um, I have three jobs. I’m executive, I’m soundtrack, actress, you know.
So, I’ve, I’ve done it before, you know. It’s just in my life, it was not that I said, “Oh, I want to entertain; I want to be an entertainer.” It’s in my family blood line. I can’t help it. It is something that God just said this is what you do. It’s in me. And so to me, it’s not like a comeback; It’s just it’s innate, it’s natural.
HOUSTON: That’s a good question. I have priorities. Maintaining my daughter is my first. She also has it in her blood, too. So now she’s, she’s doing her acting classes and her, her vocal coaching. And, so I keep her busy with that. And, she’s pretty happy with that. She’s 18 now. She’s gonna be—she’s a young woman—gonna be a woman in a minute. Lord have mercy.
But I also have a son that I have now, my god-son. He’s 22, a well balanced young man. That [my family] I took care of first, and now I can—I’m comfortable in doing, in keeping my focus on what I have to do here. You do that—it’s like preproduction, you do prep work.
And you kind of like, you never know what happens in between, you know what I’m saying? But you just be ready for whatever it brings and you try to balance it and you try make the proper decisions and you be prayerful about it, and make sure that you confer with…with that inner, inner, inner spirit. And, you know, you just do the best you can.
Can you talk a little bit about working with with R. Kelly on the soundtrack, in developing what’s going to be new material, as well as working on songs of that era? What do you bring out in each other? What do you like working with him on? Tell us stories (laughs).
HOUSTON: Oh, my goodness. Okay. I call him Robert. Let’s get that straight. Hmm…he wrote a song for me about 12, 13 years ago that he’d been trying to get to me for years, which was called I Look To You. I finally got the song. I heard it back then, and we kind of passed it—kind of—but, he still kept on it.
The timing was correct for that particular song in my life at the time. I travelled up and down that Chicago highway a few times to his house. He is the kind of musician—the kind of person—whom you can stand there and sa this is how I feel, and he’ll write a song in five minutes. He’s that incredible. I have to give him props where props are due.
And he has, if anybody knows about the anointing, he has anointing on him that’s powerful. Okay. I witnessed it myself. I’ve watched him. We’ve had our…had our share of words. And, I would win (laughs). But he is like my brother. He’s like a brother to me. We talk, um, about life and things that happen in life, and our triumphs and our survival of it. And that makes a good song for anybody to sing, or anyone to write, you know. So, I’m extremely proud and I’m very, very grateful that he’s apart of this project.
CHASE: And I think, look—one of the things about Sparkle is it has an incredibly iconic musical heritage.
CHASE: Curtis Mayfield. You know.
HOUSTON: Curtis Mayfield, absolutely.
CHASE: And so, it was like, when you start thinking about remaking the movie, obviously you know, we’ve kept a lot of the iconic songs. Then you’re like, well who’s gonna step in?
HOUSTON: Who can live up to that?
CHASE: So he’s, you’re gonna be…
HOUSTON: You’re gonna be so pleasantly surprised, man. He comes off, he delivers.
CHASE: He really delivered.
Looking back on the first time that you experienced Sparkle, I’m sure there were themes that really resonated, themes that just stuck with you. Can you describe what those were, and, now that you’re knee-deep into the material now, is there something new about the material that’s really speaking to you?
HOUSTON: For me—Debra and I were talking about this before we got here—it’s not to say that it wouldn’t have been a huge picture with Aaliyah, but it now has a real international flavor. It’s crossing the boundaries. It’s…It’s crossing the barriers, you know. It’s breaking down walls and whatever is left, it’s tearing them down.
And it is presenting African Americans in a beautiful light…In a beautiful light. Everybody on camera is just beautiful, you know. And… we’re….we’re smart and we’re educated, and we’re dealing with our time of of civil unrest, you know what I’m saying. It was a year, Dr. King was assassinated. And we have drama. All of that feeling was all up in there.
And raising children at that time as a single parent must have been… truly [had] its tasks. However, that’s why we put church in it, because it’s a foundation in my life, I know, and I think anybody who was raised in the church will understand what I’m talking about. Or in the gospel of the word. And, you know it’s just… That’s exciting to add new stuff in there, that makes it international (laughs). Everybody will be able to feel it, you know. The songs, the music. And Jordin is just spectacular.
CHASE: And I think, listen, you know, when we talked about Sparkle for the first time, many years ago, both of us, you’re in New Jersey, I’m on the other side of the country, but we both related to young girls of color finding their dreams, or pursuing their dream. Unfortunately, here we are, you know, some 40 years later—how many movies are there about young women of color, you know, pursuing their dreams?
So, in, in that sense, it’s a timeless story. And it’s, hopefully it will capture, it will have the same effect on new audiences that it did for us many years ago. And again, to Whitney’s point, I think this is very much the universal in the specific. It’s about a Black family, but the themes are for everybody. And so the hope is with the cast, like Whitney, like Jordin, like Derek Luke—people who are perceived as great actors, who happen to be people of color—that the movie, and the music, obviously, is universal. That the movie will transcend and appeal to everybody.
Could you talk about maybe the tone of the film and its rating process—I know you said it’s a family film—have there been any compromises that you’ve had to make with the studio, or have there been any suggestions they have made that maybe changed the process from its inception?
HOUSTON: Oh yeah. Oh, yeah (laughs). We’ve had our battles, yeah. Yeah.
CHASE: I mean, it’s gonna be PG-13. Right. It will be PG-13. And I think, and, you know, because we very much want this to be a family movie….I mean, look you deal with their [the character’s] issues of drug abuse…there’s certain things that you, and we’ve dealt with themin a…sophisticated manner.
HOUSTON: In a classy manner.
CHASE: In a classy manner. So that they, they’re not, you know, we’re not throwing them in your face.
HOUSTON: We’re not exploiting anything, okay.
CHASE: Yes, exactly.
HOUSTON: Yeah, we’re not telling people what to do or how to do it or whatever. We’re just trying to give an example of what love can be and how strong it can be, you know. Yeah. God bless y’all.
Look for more Sparkle set visit interviews soon.