The late Whitney Houston in a scene from "Sparkle." (Alicia Gbur / TriStar Pictures )
Warmly remembered corn, featuring some fantastic performers including Lonette McKee and Mary Alice, "Sparkle" (1976) starred Irene Cara as a mousy but learning to roar 15-year-old. She was one-third of a late '50s sister act led by McKee's hard-living smolderer, who grappled with drug abuse, contended with an abusive boyfriend and battled relentless clichés in a heartbreak-and-triumph fairy tale whipped up by screenwriter Joel Schumacher.
This was before the Broadway musical "Dreamgirls" pumped up similar material for its own purposes.
Now comes the "Sparkle" remake, and you know what? It works. The director is Salim Akil, whose ensemble comedy "Jumping the Broom" likewise paced itself with ease and authority and showed similar wiles in the way of cliché refurbishment. Most of the stuff that's new in the new "Sparkle" comes from screenwriter Mara Brock Akil, who is married to the director. Her contributions are shrewd and cleverly considered, and the stuff that's old is what people responded to back in '76.
FULL COVERAGE: Whitney Houston's death
The action, steered more toward a faith-based community than the original, has been moved forward a decade and relocated from Harlem to Detroit. Sparkle, played by "American Idol" champeen Jordin Sparks, has been activated in story terms so that she's not simply waiting around for things to happen to her, and around her.
The new Sparkle writes her own material, which she must hide from her formidable God-fearing mother, played by Whitney Houston. This is Houston's farewell; she died in February of this year, after completing filming. The character of the mother is meant to be a heartbroken vocalist wannabe who chased her dreams of glory when she was younger but ran into bad luck and worse men.
At one point in "Sparkle" one of her daughters confronts her about finding her some nights "laid up in your own vomit." The line stings, and though Houston's character refutes it, clearly it's a link to Houston's own tabloid fodder image.
TIMELINE: Houston's highs and lows
In the film Houston sings "His Eye Is On the Sparrow" at an appropriately melodramatic point in the story. It's a fitting reminder of why Houston, whose voice was coarse-grained but still powerful at the time of filming, became a sensation in the first place.
Director Akil allows even the heinous characters, such as Mike Epps' self-hating comedian, a moment of insight or revelation. There's a well-written dinner-table scene wherein Sister (Carmen Ejogo) brings him home to meet her family. They smell a rat, but Epps knows just how to play him without tipping his hand too early or too often about the brutalities to come.
PHOTOS: Whitney Houston | 1963 - 2012
Sparks, as Sparkle, has a warm and pleasing screen quality. She's a tad bland, but so is the character as written. She's meant to blow everybody away in the finale, but here's another thing about "Sparkle": It actually holds back in terms of technique and dramatic build. That restraint may hinder it at the box office, but director Akil knows how to give his actors space and time to get a few things going on their own.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic content involving domestic abuse and drug material, and for some violence, language and smoking
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Playing: In general release