It shouldn't come as a huge surprise to learn that the release of "Sparkle" is bittersweet one for star Jordin Sparks, because it marks the final big-screen appearance of late singing legend Whitney Houston.
And of course, while nothing could be better for Sparks than to have Houston here for the release, the former "American Idol" champ at the very least is happy that her personal idol was the one who helped her make the huge transition from music to the big screen in her feature film debut.
"It was such a blessing to be around her, because here I was, coming into the film as a rookie and not really knowing what I'm doing," Sparks told me in an interview Wednesday. "I was excited, but nervous and Whitney was there for me. Twenty years earlier she did 'The Bodyguard' with Kevin Costner and had to go through it as well. I could tell we related on that level."
Apart from that, Sparks was just bowled by the wow factor of who she was in the company of.
"It was not only incredible to be in a room with somebody like Whitney -- who I loved and looked up to my entire life -- but then to become co-workers and then my friend? It was really crazy to experience that," Sparks said. "She was just so amazing and fun, and nurturing and kind."
Filmed only months before Houston's untimely death at age 48 in February, "Sparkle" has proven to be an incredible roller coaster roller coaster ride of emotions for Sparks and her fellow cast and crew members in the months since. Sadly, the heartache all came rushing back Tuesday night, Sparks said at a premiere of the film in the Big Apple.
"My voice probably sounds worse than it normally does, because last night we had a New York screening of the film, and soon as Whitney starts to sing in the film, I could not hold back the tears. They just automatically happened," Sparks explained. "Since all the cast members were there, it was even more emotional, and my mom was there, so that was nerve-wracking. I'm just emotionally drained today from watching the film."
Opening in theaters nationwide on Friday, "Sparkle" is set in 1960s Detroit, where three musically gifted sisters -- Sparkle (Sparks), Dee (Tika Sumpter) and Sister (Carmen Ejogo) -- find success as a girl group in capturing the Motown sound that's sweeping the nation.
Despite being blessed with a caring manager (Derek Luke), the girls also find out that fame and fortune isn't all that's it's cracked up to be. Not only is the trio hiding their success from their strict and unsupportive mother, Emma (Houston); Sparkle and Dee are trying to save Sister from her entertainer husband, Satin (Mike Epps), who off-stage has a horrific dark side.
Although the heart of film is about Sparkle and her struggle as a songwriter who's trying to find her own voice, the foundation is grounded in Emma's tragic past as a singer and her vain efforts to dissuade at her daughters at every turn from getting caught up in the music business -- and ultimately being consumed by the dangers that come with fame.
In fact, at one point Emma chastises Sparkle about not learning from her life, which she deemed "one giant cautionary tale." And while Sparks said the singer didn't warn her about the potential dangers of fame, she said she could definitely sense Houston's personal cautionary tale lingering in the atmosphere.
"She didn't really need to say anything, she was just living proof of it," Sparks said, humbly. "She was very open and honest with all of us. She was more open about her personal struggles with Carmen, because Carmen's character in the film goes through a lot of the same things that Whitney did. I think that's why Whitney so was so excited to tell the story of this movie. She knew the parallels of her life and the parallels of what goes on in this story were very similar."
Sparks said if Houston were alive today, she wouldn't be afraid of speaking about her past troubles openly.
"She was not ashamed of who she was. She wasn't afraid the things she'd gone through, and she wasn't scared of her past," Sparks said. "The film was a great example from her not to forget where you came from and not be ashamed and afraid of who you are. All the good and the bad -- that's who she was and where she came from. She was Sparkle. She was Sister and she was the mother. That's why the story in the film comes together so well, because she lived it. While she's not here now, she has this amazing gem of a last gift to show people."
While working with Houston was personally and professionally fulfilling enough for Sparks, she also got to live another dream on "Sparkle" since the film -- a remake of 1976 film set in the 1950s Harlem -- was reconfigured to take place in 1968 in Detroit.
"With the 60s era and Motown, my grandparents actually introduced us to that when I was younger, so I grew up listening to the Jackson Five, Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, The Supremes and Diana Ross' solo stuff. I just loved it," Sparks said. "So when I read the script and found out it was set in the '60s, I was really excited not just because of the music, but because of the fashion, the makeup and the hair and everything that was going on."
Topping things off, she said, was that "Sparkle" was partially filmed in the place that made the music happen.
"Detroit is where Motown was. You can still feel the energy there. I got to live in the '60s for two months as a 22-year-old from the 2000s -- it was awesome," Sparks said, laughing. "How many people can say that?"