By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Whitney Houston was on the minds of the cast and filmmakers as they promoted their new movie “Sparkle,” the story of a young singer-songwriter living in the shadow of her more glamorous sister and under the ever-watchful eye of her overprotective mother. Sparkle (played by “American Idol” winner Jordin Sparks making her big screen debut) eventually musters the courage to step into the spotlight herself.
Set in Detroit in the 1960s, Houston plays Emma, Sparkle’s mother, who was once a promising singer before she became pregnant with the first of her three daughters. A God-fearing woman, she makes it her life’s work to keep her daughters in involved in the church and protect them from the temptations of the outside world.
Against their mom’s wishes, Sparkle and her two sisters secretly form a singing group and become a sensation (a la The Supremes). But events transpire to change the course of their lives. The original film, written by Joel Schumacher and Howard Rosenman, was released in 1976 and starred Irene Cara in the title role.
According to Houston friend and co-producer Debra Martin Chase, the music-filled family melodrama was a favorite of Houston’s and one they had long wanted to remake. Houston got on board as executive producer a several years ago and helped usher the project to the big screen.
“Sparkle” was supposed to be Houston’s triumphant return as an actress to the big screen (following her prior notable performances in “The Bodyguard” and “The Preacher’s Wife”), but earlier this year she drowned in a Beverly Hills hotel bathtub. Though the official cause of death was determined accidental, a number of drugs, including cocaine, were found in her body.
Yet Houston’s “Sparkle” colleagues remember her as a happy and supportive co-worker and friend during a recent stop here to promote the movie. They view “Sparkle” as a final and fitting tribute to her.
“Working with her was a lot of fun,” recalls Sparks, 22, who grew up listening to Houston’s music and watching her movies.
“You hear all these stories about people meeting their idols and it not going well—that wasn’t how it was when I met Whitney,” she continues. “But she was so down to earth. She wanted to sit with us, talk with us and get to know us, which was really nice. She could have been like ‘I’ll do my scenes and go back to my trailer.’ That wasn’t how she was. Of course, she was executive producing as well but she didn’t really have to be there.
“She was watching over us, checking things out and asking us if we needed anything and if we were OK. It was amazing to go through that with this supernova, diva ‘the Voice,’ and she’s just going ‘So, what’s your favorite thing?’ just little questions that were sweet.”
Tika Sumpter, who plays Houston’s brainy middle daughter Dolores, recalls their scenes together as among her favorites.
“One of my favorite moments on set was the scene where she and my character are saying goodbye,” she says. “Also, the one where she was yelling at Sparkle that she’s never going to be anything because, in those moments, she was so open and giving as an actor and so present.”
The young actress says Houston was also nurturing, fun and inspiring.
“I wanted to take in everything I could from her,” she says. “Even when her character was being mean, she was motherly. She was open and vulnerable and loving.”
“She loved the movie so much,” adds her producing partner Chase, who previously worked with Houston on the ABC/Disney movie “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. “She was the happiest I’d ever seen her. This is the ultimate celebration.”
Others also were impacted by Houston’s presence on the set.
“She was off the hook,” recalls Mike Epps, who plays Satin, the hot-tempered boyfriend of Emma’s oldest daughter, Sister.
Though their onscreen relationship is adversarial, he says in real life he and Houston, whom he had met 20 years earlier, got along well. He previously had worked with Houston and her then husband Bobby Brown nearly two decades ago on a music video.
“I don’t remember the name of the song; I was a paparazzi and I was taking pictures of her,” he says.
Seeing Houston again 20 years later on the set of “Sparkle” was a memorable experience for the funnyman.
“She was really really vibrant,” he recalls. “She was just full of life and really alive. She was just happy to be there.”
He says Houston felt at ease on the set and it was a positive environment for her.
“Movie sets are totally different from music (video sets), the people around it (and) the whole environment,” he says. “It felt like (with her) it was more settled and structured. It wasn’t flaky. It was like coming in and going to work. We were clocking in every morning and there was a set routine. That’s how she came off.”
The actor-comedian recalls that world-renowned singer-actress seemed to be more starstruck by her colleagues than they were by her.
“When she first saw me on the set, she said, ‘Let me get a picture with you,’” he recalls. “That threw me off. I was like, ‘You want a picture with me?’ She said, ‘My daughter Bobbi Christina told me you don’t know everybody, mama,’ and I said to her, ‘I know everybody in the business,’ and her daughter said, ‘You don’t know Mike Epps.’ So she kept it real.”
Carmen Ejogo, who plays Houston’s oldest daughter, Sister, says she couldn’t believe she was acting in a movie opposite one of her childhood idols.
“So much of Whitney in real life is embodied in my character,” the British actress says. “That was something she was open about. We were mirroring each other in our final scenes. We connected on a deep level. It was very emotional. It was a good time for her and a story she’d been dying to tell.”
Sparks says she felt lucky to have a chance to work with Houston, whom she had met a few years earlier at a post-Grammy party but was too shy to engage in a real conversation.
“My manager at the time brought me over and I said, ‘Hi, my name is Jordin,’ and she said, ‘Hi, nice to meet you,’ and I was like, ‘OK, uh, have a good night,’ and I just turned around. I did not know what to say. I never got the chance to ask her if she remembered that but that was my first meeting with her. I hadn’t spoken to her until we got to set (of ‘Sparkle’) in Detroit.”
For husband and wife filmmakers Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil, Houston embodied the Emma role because she intimately knew the character.
“That person was my mom and that person was Whitney’s mom,” recalls Salim Akil, who directed from a script written by his wife. “That person is a much an American classic as (Willy Loman) in ‘Death of a Salesman.’ Once we did our research we found out that those women were there and holding down a certain part of our community (during that time).”
Adds his wife, “I think Whitney was delighted to share that story too. She was excited to play that role.”