As TriStar rolls out “Sparkle” on more than 2,200 screens today, the specter of the late Whitney Houston looms large, due mostly to the circumstances surrounding her death in February. But followers of Jordin Sparks, who plays the title role in the movie about the rise of a Supremes-like trio in late ’60s Detroit, might be hard-pressed to fathom just how big a star Houston was in her heyday.
When producer Debra Martin Chase became production partners with Houston in 1995, “she was one of a handful of the biggest stars in the world: Michael, Madonna, Prince, Mariah — she was the epitome of a superstar,” recalled Chase.
But when “Sparkle,” a remake of a cult classic from 1976, began to gel in 2009 after the project stalled due to the death of Aaliyah — who was to star in a Warner Bros. remake that Chase and Houston initiated 12 years ago — Houston was in the midst of a not-so-successful comeback. Her first studio recording in seven years, “I Look to You” had just arrived after a long fallow period marred by substance abuse and a messy divorce from Bobbi Brown.
She was hardly the same singer-actress whose performances in “The Bodyguard” (1992) and “The Preacher’s Wife” (1996) earned a combined $459 million worldwide at the boxoffice and produced the bestselling soundtrack and gospel soundtrack albums, respectively, of all time.
“She hadn’t been in front of the camera in 15 years,” Chase said. “And honestly, there were questions about her (overseas) concert tour just in terms of perception.”
And in the wake of Houston’s death, questions about her competence on the “Sparkle” shoot immediately surfaced around town. “I was there with her every day, she was the happiest, healthiest, most open, most present I had ever seen her,” Chase said.
Houston acted as a mentor to younger members of the cast, particularly Sparks, who makes her film debut in “Sparkle,” just as Kevin Costner was a guiding light for Houston’s maiden role in “The Bodyguard.”
So far, sales of the soundtrack have hardly been sparkling, having debuted at No. 26 on the Billboard Top 200 with sales of 12,024 units and dropping 38% in its second week on the chart. But that could change with the release of the film, which has generated mixed to positive reviews; tracking for the movie puts it in the mid- to high teens.
In the meantime, Houston, even in her death, seems to be in the midst of a perfect storm of attention. In addition to “Sparkle,” she is the subject of a Grammy Museum exhibit that opened Wednesday; RCA is about to announce a greatest hits package from the singer; and Houston is the centerpiece of a tribute album being recorded by the R&B Divas, which includes Faith Evans and Nicci Gilbert, who star in a reality show that debuts Monday on TV One. The album is due Oct. 1 on the eOne label.
“Whitney Houston was the greatest singer on the face of the earth,” Gilbert said. “I’m hard-pressed to believe there will be anybody who could deliver a song like her. And some of what caused her demise eventually was the pressures of the industry.”
If Houston’s career serves as a cautionary tale, her life seems like perfect fodder for a pop biopic. Even in “Sparkle,” where she plays an ex-singer recovered from a bout with addiction, “she became that character and the lines blurred,” says Chase.
But don’t look for the Whitney Houston story on screen anytime soon. Chase admits she was approached by a studio a few years back, but felt there was another chapter yet to be told. “She had an extraordinary life and that’s the stuff that great biopics are made of,” she said. “Hopefully some day (but) not now.”
Related: “Sparkle” film review