Barely six weeks after Michael Jackson died in the summer of 2009, Sony Pictures made a surprising announcement: It would release a documentary showing the star preparing for what, with the singer’s death, had become a canceled series of London concerts.
Culled from dozens of hours of rehearsal footage shot in the weeks before he died, “Michael Jackson’s This Is It,” as the film was to be called, would come out that October. The film, which would be directed by Kenny Ortega (who was also helming the concerts), would offer a peek at the plans for the aborted shows while also documenting a musical icon’s last creative efforts.
Inevitably, there was a backlash from some fans and pundits. Did the studio have a fully realized film? Or was it hastily throwing together outtakes to cash in on a star's death? And even if it did have the goods, was it moving too soon in bringing out a Jackson movie just four months after he died?
PHOTOS: Whitney Houston, 1963-2012
But the studio pressed on, saying that the film “will offer Jackson fans and music lovers worldwide a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the performer, his career and the stage spectacular that would have been.” And when “Michael Jackson’s This Is It” came out at the end of October, Sony was vindicated: The movie received largely positive reviews for its insight into Jackson’s creative process and made more than $260 million worldwide.
Sony finds itself in an eerily similar situation this week with the death of Whitney Houston.
As it did with Jackson, the Culver City studio is sitting on filmed material from an iconic musician that also happens to be some her last creative work -- a period musical drama called “Sparkle” in which Houston stars as the mother of aspiring pop-soul singers. Directed by Salim Brock Akil and also starring Jordin Sparks, “Sparkle” is a remake of a 1976 film that features Irene Cara. Houston's role, as the complicated mother to sisters who risk becoming corrupted by success (including one who becomes a victim of addiction), is significant. It's also Houston’s first film part in 15 years.
“Sparkle” had long been scheduled for an Aug. 17 release by Sony, and for the moment it remains there; a studio spokesman said there are no plans to change the date because of Houston’s death. But at least one person familiar with the studio’s release plans who was not authorized to talk about them publicly said there have been internal discussions about bringing out the movie sooner.
It’s certainly a legitimate conversation. Rather than wait six months to release the movie, Sony could bring out “Sparkle” in, say, June, which would be four months after Houston's death, the same window as “This Is It.” In fact, the studio could move up “Sparkle” even earlier since, unlike “This Is It” at the time of its star’s death, Houston’s movie is already complete.
That would require some creative juggling with theater owners and publicity venues. But studios have changed schedules at more of the last-minute, and for subjects less newsworthy, many times before. It’s hard to imagine a theater owner or morning-show booker that wouldn’t want it out as soon as possible.
The studio could also face charges that it is acting insensitively -- unlike Jackson, there is an addiction subplot to “Sparkle” that could land awkwardly. And Sony couldn’t make the case that it is bringing out the movie to show what could have been: “This Is It” offered a glimpse into performances of which we’d otherwise have been oblivious. “Sparkle” will offer the same look at Houston’s acting abilities no matter when it comes out.
But Sony could also persuasively make the argument that Houston’s death has awakened an interest in her work. Moving up the film to spring would simply meet that need (and wouldn’t be much different from the numerous cable specials and other retrospectives that have been announced in the past few days, anyway).
Maybe most important, the studio would have a precedent to fall back on: “This Is It” proved that moving quickly doesn’t mean you’re running roughshod over taste or quality.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Jordin Sparks and Whitney Houston in "Sparkle." Credit: Sony Pictures