A good musical soundtrack reminds the listener of a grander experience: That of an evening spent in the thrall of a performance, transfixed by live singing. A great soundtrack stands on its own, a mix of stellar songwriting, thoughtful production and transcendent vocals. Think Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The Sound of Music, The Wiz. By that standard, Sparkle (RCA Records) is neither great nor good.
Inspired by the Motown sound of the ’60s (especially the Supremes), the original film version of Sparkle premiered in 1976, with songs composed by Curtis Mayfield and sung by Aretha Franklin. The Mayfield/Franklin teaming, as you might expect, hovers around the “great” category, and it’s easy to question whether the current cast of Jordin Sparks, Carmen Ejogo, Tika Sumpter and Cee Lo Green, tackling new songs by R. Kelly (?!) plus some of the Mayfield compositions, can come close to the crackling electricity of the original.
Still, it’s unfair to compare the two — pitting a young Idol against the Queen of Soul is just plain cruel, right? — so let’s concentrated on the big difference: Kelly’s songs. “One Wing” proves the best of the bunch, a rolling mixture of old-school soul and gospel. The song traverses traditional ground with a smidge of swagger before bursting into a chorus-buoyed climax. Kelly’s predilection for odd imagery teeters between genius and whacko; here, the “flying with one wing” metaphor hits the mark, conjuring a yearning that could be either romantic or spiritual. Or both. Sparks’ vocals are spot on technically here, but she suffers the same malady of many modern singers: She scores a 10 for ability and a 2 for vocal personality. Hers is not a voice that will move mountains, despite the soaring a capella interlude Kelly affords her toward the end of the song.
“Love Will” starts out promisingly, with an “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”-esque riff, but sashays into a disappointing mid-tempo number. It’s fine. but does it honor Motown’s past?
The Sparks-Houston duet “Celebrate” provides a beacon of hope, holding as it does the sad honor of being Whitney’s last recorded song. Meant as an inspirational, up-tempo hand-clapper, it sputters as Sparks and Houston awkwardly trade off vocals. “Celebrate” could have stood as a final, fireworks-laden swan song for a legend. Instead, its tepid stabs at enthusiasm reflect the waning energy of a woman on the brink of letting go.
The remainder of the album suffers a similar malaise. Even the Mayfield tracks drag under the weight of lackadaisical vocals and indifferent production. Lovers of musical soundtracks searching for brightness from Sparkle be warned: Your eyes won’t be blinded by any dazzle, but they might droop from boredom.
— Jonanna Widner
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 14, 2012.