American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"Sparkle" is a full-bodied musical melodrama that acquires a melancholy undertone because it features the last performance by Whitney Houston. She exhibits a serene middle-age beauty here, and there are no hints that she would die shortly after the film was finished. But the script gives her one chilling line, which she uses in a lecture to her three daughters: "Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?"
She plays Emma, a conservative Detroit middle-class church lady, whose apparent prosperity is hard to explain in light of her daughter's memories of finding her passed out in her own vomit. The family lives in a comfy home where all three grown-up girls are relentlessly ruled by Emma's curfews, her compulsory church attendance, and her stern warnings to any man who drifts too near her treasures.
The most fragrant flower in the bouquet is slinky, sexy Sister (Carmen Ejogo). The most serious is college student Dee (Tika Sumpter), apparently the first woman they've ever seen who wears an Afro. The shy sweetheart is Sparkle, played by the perfectly named American Idol winner Jordin Sparks. She lives and breathes music and fills notebooks with her songs but doesn't have the courage to face the spotlight; as the movie opens she's backstage urging Sister to solo, which Sister, after a show of reluctance, does -- sensationally. Carmen Ejogo, who you may recall as Thomas Jefferson's lover in the TV series "Sally Hemmings," steals the film not only in her sultry singing numbers but in her violent marriage to a snaky, evil comedian named Satin (Mike Epps).
That comes after the three girls have taken the first steps in a musical career masterminded by a nice guy named Stix (Derek Luke), who meets Sparkle at church, falls in love, and produces their first shows. We are meant to believe these early steps in their career were made possible when they sneaked out of their bedroom windows at night; apparently Emma had no hint of their subterfuge.