Whitney Houston at the 2009 American Music Awards, where she accepted the Winner of International - Favorite Artist Award. / Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Just as a photographer was to start snapping at a recent magazine shoot for Sparkle, the background music landed randomly on Whitney Houston’s version of I’m Every Woman.
"I burst into tears," says the movie’s producer, Debra Martin Chase, a longtime friend and colleague of the music icon. "I heard her voice and it just registered. I believe it was her way of saying to us, 'I’m there with you.'"
Expect a similar wave of emotion when Sparkle, one of this summer’s most anticipated movies, opens Aug. 17. What was to be a comeback — this was Houston’s first film since 1996’s The Preacher’s Wife — now represents a final chapter in her rocky, remarkable life.
"This is the best performance of her career, and she knew it," Chase says. "The irony is, she was really comfortable in her skin in a way that I hadn’t seen in a long time. She was like, 'This is who I am. My life’s been complicated, but I’m happy.'"
A brighter legacy
Contentment often seemed in short supply for Houston, a superstar whose private life was under constant public scrutiny. The world embraced her chart-topping songs and box-office successes but was glued to gossip about her turbulent marriage and drug abuse.
In February came the startling news that she had died at age 48 in a Los Angeles hotel room of what eventually was determined to be an accidental drowning, with heart disease and cocaine use as contributing factors. The media presented a portrait of a troubled diva battling personal demons: Her last days were illustrated by snapshots of a sweaty, disheveled Houston leaving a pre-Grammys party.
Chase says the movie will leave fans with another image — that of a gifted, focused star starring in, and executive-producing, a labor of love. "People will look at her — beautiful, healthy, joyous — and think of Sparkle first, before they think about the pictures of her coming out of the nightclubs."
A few months before her death, Houston spent about six weeks filming in Detroit. American Idol winner Jordin Sparks, who plays the lead role of Sparkle, describes her as a caring, 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?'" says Sparks, who’s making her film debut. "She was always just so encouraging. She was so full of joy and so 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."
Unafraid of the past
Houston grew up in New Jersey watching the 1976 original version of Sparkle that broke Hollywood barriers with its story about the hopes and struggles of a singing sister group made up of beautiful young women of color.
At a small gathering with reporters at a Detroit church in November, a regal and relaxed Houston described how Sparkle inspired her: "I would go every Saturday, for, like four months straight, and I would watch the matinee to the evening show."
When she and Chase became producing partners, Houston suggested updating the music-laden drama that meant so much to her. In 2001, their plans to have singer/actress Aaliyah play the title role were tragically halted by her death in a plane crash.
Years later, this version jelled, with characters moving from the streets of ’50s New York to an affluent African-American family in ’60s Detroit. In the movie, Sparkle and her sisters form a group. Houston plays their mother, Emma, a dress shop owner and ex-singer aware of show business’s hazards. Houston wasn’t afraid of similarities to her life, especially the downward spiral of Sister, Emma’s daughter drawn into a drug-filled, abusive relationship.
"There were lots of parallels between her life and my character, and she would not shy away from talking about that with me," says Carmen Ejogo, who plays Sister. "She was a true artist in that sense. She was willing to expose herself."
Houston spread enthusiasm. "She would play gospel music in the morning: Fred Hammond, CeCe Winans, Kim Burrell. That was her favorite thing. It set the tone of the day," says lead hairstylist Kim Kimble, star of WE-TV’s L.A. Hair.
On the set, Houston enjoyed rubbing elbows with cast and crew. She hung out in the lunchroom and shared stories with awed extras. "She was always laughing and smiling and singing. It would be nothing for us to be sitting around and she would break out into a hymn," says Detroit singer Beth Griffith, who was Houston’s stand-in and who bonded with the star over sharing a birthday.
Houston still had the power to dazzle a crowd. During filming at a church, Houston brought everyone to tears when she performed His Eye Is on the Sparrow clad in a flowing gown. "She sang that song so beautifully, it was as if we were in a church service," Griffith says. "It was no longer acting."
Says director Salim Akil: "Knowing when to hit the high note and when to restrain one’s self is very important in life, and I think that’s what she embodied. If you go back and you listen to her music or watch some of her performances, what you will notice is an elegance and a beauty to the restraint."
Houston was proud of being on time to work, says friend BeBe Winans, author of the new book The Whitney I Knew. Via e-mail, he notes: "Whitney called me as soon as she landed in Detroit, seeing [as] some of my family still lives there, and she asked for my brother Pastor Marvin Winans’ number so she could attend his church." In a paparazzi-free haven, Houston joined the cast one night at a jazz club and wore pearls to a Detroit Lions football game.
As Sparkle’s opening nears, colleagues are excited and sorrowful. "Since this was something she was so passionate about," Sparks says, "we want to represent her and celebrate her and represent this movie in the best way we possibly can."
Griffith recorded the broadcast of Houston’s funeral but hasn’t felt ready to watch it. "After I heard she died, it made me want to work harder and better," she says. "I really feel like she gave me a part of her."
And now, with Sparkle, Houston will give all of her fans one last gift.
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