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"Sparkle" gives Jordin Sparks her chance to shine

for Journal Register Newspapers

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BIRMINGHAM -- Jordin Sparks didn't bite off too much for her feature film debut -- just performing songs first sung by Aretha Franklin and acting alongside Whitney Houston in her highly anticipated return to the big screen after 16 years away.

"It was very exciting to be part of it, especially with Whitney," says Sparks, who stars as aspiring singer and songwriter Sparkle Williams in "Sparkle," a remake of the 1976 film that was set in Harlem but moved to Detroit circa mid-60s for the new version. The 2007 "American Idol" champ is sitting in at suite at the Townsend Hotel during a late July return to the area, where the "Sparkle" crew worked from Oct. 10 to Nov. 17 of 2011. She's still buzzing from sitting next to Franklin during the film's premiere at the Emagine theater in Royal Oak the previous night -- "I was like, 'Oh, I don't know if I can handle this,' but it was great." -- but the screen image of Houston, who played the Sparkle character's strict mother, brought back a flood of memories from the shoot.

"All of us knew who Whitney is and were so excited to be part of it," Sparks, 22, says. "But for me it was a singer who I'd idolized from a young age, along with all the other divas I'd listened to. She was this superstar, world-renowned, The Voice. Every girl is compared to her when you sing.

"So to be standing in a room with her, I had that moment where I was going on my head, 'Omigosh, omigosh...,' and the other voice was saying, 'Get it together!~' I was exhausted by the end of the day because of that internal battle that was going on."

The legacy of Houston, who died on Feb. 11 in her Los Angeles hotel room, of course looms large over "Sparkle" and its Aug. 17 opening. And that's as true for Sparks as for any of the other fans who will troop to see it.

"It's very bittersweet," the Arizona-born singer acknowledges. "This was supposed to be her moment, you know? It had been 16 years since she had done another movie ('The Preacher's Wife' in 1996) and it was supposed to be her coming out moment -- and it is. She definitely delivers.

"This is my first film, so it was a huge thing already for me, and now that it's the end of Whitney's legacy and I'm in this film that's the last thing that people get to see of her, it makes it even bigger and just carry a lot more weight. The movie meant so much to her that now it means just as much to me, if not more because I want to represent it the way she would have wanted."

Fortunately, Sparks says she has nothing but good memories about working with Houston, who she says, "made it so comfortable for all of us to just want to be around her and near her. She wanted us to shine. She could've just been like, 'I'm gonna do this and I'm gonna leave,' and she didn't have to talk to any of us or anything like that. But she really wanted to share this with all of us.

"She was so humble and so giving; you fell in love with her after you talked to her for five minutes."

Sparks, who duets with Houston on the R. Kelly-written single "Celebrate" from the "Sparkle" soundtrack, says Houston was also "very quick-witted and had a very, very great sense of humor." She would often crack up her co-stars while filming scenes -- though one, in which the Sparkle character and one of her sisters put a sleeping drug in their mother's drink so they could sneak out of the house undetected, was excised after Houston's death.

Houston's passing notwithstanding, Sparks is pleased with both how "Sparkle" -- directed by Salim Akil and spotlighting a variety of Detroit landmarks, including Cliff Bell's and the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Dorothy Turkel house -- came out and what it means for her still-developing career. The project came along while she was "kind of in this limbo stage" between albums, in-between management and with a record company that was in transition. " 'Sparkle' fell into my lap and was perfect," says Sparks, whose previous acting experience included a 2009 appearance on Disney's "The Suite Life on Deck" and a 12-week Broadway run in "In the Heights." "I was able to do something new for me and expand on my artistry and do acting, but at the same time I can make some new music for my fans and it's part of the movie.

"Everything was kind of perfect for me."

Now Sparks is working to keep it that way. She's "got about seven songs I feel strongly about" for her third album, the follow-up to 2009's Top 10 "Battlefield," though with seven songs on the "Sparkle" soundtrack Sparks notes that "I don't really have a time limit" to deliver more new music. And she's already making her next film, a non-singing role playing "an Afro-Latina from the Bronx" named Alice in "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete," which is being filmed in New York and co-stars fellow "Idol" alumnus Jennifer Hudson, Anthony Mackie and Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje.

"I can't wait to see that as well," says Sparks, who knows that "Sparkle's" opening may well change the circumstances around that project -- and everything else she does from here on out. "I know, sitting here, my life is going to change even more. I'm kind of just buckling up my seat belt and raising my hands for (the ride), and that's how it's going to be.

"It's exciting -- a little scary, but definitely exciting."

"Sparkle" opens Friday, Aug. 17. Check listings for theaters and showtimes.

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