"Sparkle" began production as a showcase for the "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks, but it's destined to be remembered as the final film for Whitney Houston, who died in February. Her role is small but her performance is a triumph, and her heart-stopping gospel number, clearly meant as a comeback announcement, now has the spine-tingling feel of an epitaph. That moment alone would make "Sparkle" worth seeing.
But "Sparkle" has much more to offer. It's a fun, sudsy tale of show-biz ups and downs, with an endearing Sparks in the title role as one of three singing siblings in Motown-era Detroit. You've seen this story before, most recently in "Dreamgirls," so you're probably familiar with types like the spotlight-hogging Sister (a remarkable Carmen Ejogo), levelheaded Dolores (Tika Sumpter), budding music-mogul Sticks (Derek Luke) and the nasty-humored Satin (a very good Mike Epps).
Houston plays the girls' mother, Emma Anderson, whose back story -- a failed singing career and a drinking problem -- has an uncanny resonance given Houston's lifelong troubles. "Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?" Emma says, one of several lines that now ring even truer than intended.
"Sparkle" freshens this familiar material with energetic direction by Salim Akil and a sharp script by his wife, Mara Brock Akil. The buoyant musical numbers genuinely capture the excitement of the era, partly because "Sparkle" is a remake of a 1976 drama (starring a young Irene Cara and Philip Michael Thomas) with original songs by the great Curtis Mayfield. Several reappear here, including the Supremes-ish "Hooked on Your Love" and the ballad "Something He Can Feel," sung by the three stars in eye-catching costumes and with lush new arrangements (R. Kelly is the film's "executive musical consultant"). Though the story flags near the end, "Sparkle" is always a treat, and a bittersweet reminder of what Houston could have kept giving us.
PLOT In 1968, three Detroit sisters form a singing group against their mother's wishes.
RATINGPG-13 (mild language, violence, drug use)
PLAYING At area theaters
BOTTOM LINE Houston's triumphant performance -- her last -- is just one of many high points in this fun, frothy, energetic musical.