Jordin Sparks says that Whitney Houston loved playing a mother in "Sparkle," both when the cameras were rolling and behind the scenes as a maternal force.
"Every morning, she would walk into the hair and makeup trailer and she would open the door and she'd go, 'How are my babies today? God is good. You guys doing OK?'," the 2007 winner of "American Idol" recalls. "She was always just so encouraging. She was so full of joy and full of light, because this was her baby. She'd been working on this movie and getting it out for, I think, 10-plus years. She absolutely loved being there."
Houston, who had battled drug problems for many years, died in a Los Angeles hotel room in February, nearly three months after filming wrapped in Detroit. Suddenly, what was supposed to be the music diva's comeback became her final screen performance.
Sparks, who plays the title role of Houston's daughter in "Sparkle," hasn't seen the final cut yet, but expects it will trigger a wave of emotions.
"I think the first time I actually get to see it, I'll probably bawl throughout the entire film," she says, talking candidly by phone last week. "Then I'll have to see it a second time to really see what they did with it."
"Sparkle," which opens Aug. 17, is already considered one of the most anticipated movies of the summer, and not only because it represents Houston's last big project. The clips in the trailer convey the energy and appeal of the movie's vibrant cast, music and setting -- the Detroit of 1960s Motown.
Doing a remake of the 1976 original -- which starred a pre-"Fame" Irene Cara and Detroit's own Lonette McKee -- had long been a goal for Houston and her friend, veteran Hollywood producer Debra Martin Chase. At one point, they were planning for Detroit-raised singer-actress Aaliyah to star in the film, but then she was killed in a plane crash in 2001.
Houston and Chase left the project alone for a while, eventually finding their Sparkle in Sparks, who'd heard some talk about the remake and decided to see the original movie a few months before she received the script.
The 22-year-old Sparks tried to imagine how she would feel if she were seeing the film in 1976, when young African-American women weren't cast in many big-screen roles, much less in starring ones. The connection she felt to the movie was immediate.
"I was actually really surprised. Irene Cara walked on and I was like, whoa, we could totally be sisters. It was the craziest thing seeing her on the screen."
The casting process, which she describes as nerve-racking and fun, took about two months. Her final audition involved testing her acting chemistry with Derek Luke and two other actors in contention to play opposite her. "That was definitely different. I have never had to do chemistry testing before in my life. Two out of the three kissed me and it was like, 'Oh good, I just kissed two complete strangers,' " she says with a laugh.
In the musical drama, Sparkle and her two older sisters (Carmen Ejogo and Tika Sumpter), who are from an affluent Detroit neighborhood, form a Supremes-like singing group. Luke is Sparkle's love interest. Mike Epps plays Satin, a figure who winds up drawing Sparkle's sister into an abusive relationship and drugs. The cast also includes pop star Cee Lo Green and Omari Hardwick.
In the preview, there are several clips of Houston as a church-going mother who is a former professional singer and is concerned about her daughters entering show business. In a poignant moment, her character refers to herself as a cautionary tale.
"Sparkle" filming started in Detroit in October, using locations like Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, the Masonic Temple, Cliff Bell's jazz club, a stretch of Woodward Avenue by the Fox Theatre and a private residence in Indian Village. The team bonded quickly, led by director Salim Akil ("Jumping the Broom"), whose wife, Mara Brock Akil of the TV series "The Game" and "Girlfriends," wrote the screenplay. The producers include the Akils, Chase and Bishop T.D. Jakes, while Houston was an executive producer.
Sparks spent about two months working in the Motor City, where the Doubletree Hotel was her home base. She says a feeling spread quickly among the cast and crew that the project was developing into something special.
"As we kept going, everybody would kind of look around and go, 'This is big, this is going to be big.' I was so excited. I remember telling my mom and some of my family members after we were through filming, 'This is going to be so huge, you have no idea.' They were like, OK. I was like, 'No, you have to believe me.' It's going to be massive."
Her nervousness about starring in her first feature film was calmed by Salim Akil's direction, which was always encouraging, and the cast's willingness to accept her.
Houston, she says, went from being an icon she admired to a friend who cracked jokes with her and stepped in to help if she needed something on the set. And Luke would take time to go over their scenes and discuss what the characters were thinking.
"Getting actually to Detroit and being on location, I was still in this dreamlike state, like, oh my gosh, this is really happening. I'm going to be filming this movie. I was definitely just trying to absorb whatever information they could give me," says Sparks.
The role also gave her a chance to expand her musical horizons. Early on, Sparks heard a song slated for her to perform called "One Wing" by R. Kelly. He provided new music for the film, which also includes "Something He Can Feel," the Curtis Mayfield hit from the first "Sparkle." "We were in the Masonic Temple. I remember being in one of the big rooms and they were playing it for me and my jaw dropped on the floor and I was like, 'I get to sing this, for real?' "
Sparks, who's had pop hits like "No Air," says the song has more of an R&B-gospel feel. "My fans haven't heard me do that yet, so it's going to be a totally different side that they haven't seen," she notes.
Only 17 when she became the youngest "Idol" winner ever five years ago, Sparks giggles at the mention of the movie's poster, which is dominated by a picture of her striking a dramatic pose and wearing a glamorous gown. "I was not expecting that at all," she remembers, adding how she thought it would feature a much smaller photo of her. "I teared up. My heart dropped. My stomach was in knots. It's all so surreal still that I'm a part of this."
But the soon-to-be film star sounds quite mature for 22 when she discusses what she's learned about show business as someone not that much older than Sparkle. "You have to be careful and keep your eyes open and keep people that you really, really trust around you," she says, crediting her family with giving her the support to deal with the pace and pressures.
And she has a grown-up grasp of what promoting the movie means in Houston's absence.
"I know for all of us that since this was something she was so passionate about, we want to represent her and celebrate her and represent this movie in the best way we possibly can," she says.
The urgency of the mission is clear in her voice.
"She was amazing to watch and her scenes were phenomenal," says Sparks.
More Details: 'Sparkle'
Opens Aug. 17
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