It’s not a hallucination. You are seeing Jordin Sparks everywhere these days. The singer turned actress is all over the place, including Atlanta, promoting her sure to-please-the-gays musical “Sparkle,” co-starring the late Whitney Houston in her final film.
In the movie, a remake of the 1976 musical, Sparks plays the titular character, longing to be a singing sensation with her sisters Dee/Delores (Tika Sumpter) and Sister (Carmen Ejogo). It’s Detroit in the late ‘60s and Motown music is the craze. But the trio’s mother (Houston) wants no part of her daughters’ plan.
The original “Sparkle” with Irene Cara and Lonette McKee was a cult fave, panned by critics but still beloved by many. Sparks was in town last week with co-star Sumpter, and we talked to her about the movie, about working with Houston, and about the lasting impact of the superstar after losing her back in February.
“I had seen the original – I love anything musical,” Sparks tells us during her Atlanta stop. “I love the characters. There is a lot of me in Sparkle.
“I got the part and realized how much of a cult classic it was, how loved it was,” she continues. “People would come up to me and say, ‘So why are you remaking it?’ ‘Is this song going to be in the soundtrack?’”
The challenges for the performer in “Sparkle” were many – acting in a film for the first time; handling a leading role in a movie many were familiar with; and working alongside Houston, one of her own idols and the executive producer of the project. At first, her nerves got to her, she says.
“I didn’t want to be horrible,” Sparks says. “I need this!”
She eventually overcame her fears, and she credits fellow cast members for helping her out immeasurably on the acting side. When the acting was done and it was time to sing – including the Sparks-Houston duet “Celebrate” (remix video above) – she was fine.
“Since there was music involved, I was in my comfort zone there,” she says.
“Sparkle” marks the final film of Houston, who passed away in February just before a Grammys appearance that would have included promoting the movie. The news of Houston’s death still rattles her co-star, who by happenstance was talking to us in Atlanta on Houston’s birthday.
“I was actually getting ready to walk the red carpet with her, to go down and do the first rounds for the movie,” Sparks recalls. “My publicist came to the door and said ‘Whitney’s gone.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, she doesn’t want to do the carpet?’ And she said, ‘She’s passed.’ And I pretty much lost all thought, feeling, movement, just everything. I didn’t know what to do. I don’t think I’ve cried that hard ever.”
Sparks and her publicist turned on the TV to see what was being reported. Shortly after, phones starting ringing nonstop. She got lots of press requests to talk about Houston, but she couldn’t handle it.
“It was so hard for all of us,” Sparks says. “It was so unexpected. The last time we saw her was in Detroit filming the movie. We were so happy and excited, and she was such a ray of light. We didn’t see everyone again until the funeral. It was surreal. We were shell-shocked.”
Nonetheless, the performer holds on to memories of her time on the set with Houston and the warmth Houston showed towards the other cast and crew.
“She gave so much of herself to the people she became close to,” Sparks says. “She was fun-loving, goofy, had a great sense of humor. She wanted to get to know all of us.”
Over the last five years since becoming the youngest “American Idol” winner at age 17, Sparks has become aware of her gay fans.
“I didn’t realize I had such a gay fan base until I starting touring on my own after ‘Idol,’” she says. “It was so cool, that I was touching so many people. [My gay fans] are so sweet and supportive and loyal. I am excited for people to see me in something different. Whitney had her [gay] fan base that was huge.”
Sumpter, who says she has lots of gay people in her life, jokes that she is looking forward to Halloween to see recreations of the “Sparkle” characters. Until then, gays fans can enjoy “the dresses, the costumes, the music, the drama, the attitude, the hot men, the hot women” the film has to offer, she laughs.
Continuing to do both music and movies would be fine for Sparks. She is currently working on a new film, a drama about inner city youths, with – of all people – Jennifer Hudson, another “Idol” alum.
“Sparkle” opens in metro area theaters on Friday.
Jim Farmer is an Atlanta-based freelance entertainment writer and public relations professional. He has been a theater and pop-culture critic for more than a dozen years and is the director of Atlanta’s annual Out On Film LGBT film festival.