For Bishop T.D. Jakes, watching Whitney Houston sing a classic gospel hymn two months ago made him sure the long-struggling singer was poised for a comeback. Instead, her soulful rendition of His Eye is on the Sparrow will be the last chance for audiences to see Houston perform new music. Her performance was filmed for a scene in the upcoming movie Sparkle, in which Houston stars as the mother of a family of girls who form a singing group and struggle with fame and addiction.
Houston's death on Saturday in the bathroom of her room at the Beverly Hilton Hotel thwarted any chance for the singer to rebound from years of damage to her voice and reputation caused by drug abuse and erratic behavior.
The footage of Houston singing is nowhere near as voluminous as the rehearsal videos left behind by Michael Jackson that were crafted into the film This Is It. Yet Sparkle represents a similar opportunity for audiences the chance to see a once-gifted but since-tarnished artist perform one last time. "Above and beyond the film itself, I think all of us have a sense that we have been entrusted with this gift from Whitney to the world," Jakes said.
Jackson's film, released four months after his death, earned more than $250 million worldwide; the success of Sparkle, scheduled for release on Aug. 17, remains to be seen. But Jakes predicted audiences would be moved by Houston's singing of the Sparrow gospel classic and another song recorded for the film. "She delivered it with such conviction that it was a very touching moment in the filming of the movie," recalled Jakes, a Texas minister who helped produce the film. "She just left such a deep impression on everybody."
Houston's performance, filmed in Detroit, brought tears to the eyes of those on the Sparkle set, Jakes said.
The film's executive producer, Howard Rosenman, said the film will show audiences a "Whitney that people have never seen, Whitney that people have never heard." By the time of her death, Houston was far removed from her defining film role in 1992's The Bodyguard, which not only became a blockbuster, but also broke down cultural barriers and produced an award-winning soundtrack anchored by the singer's vocals.
Posthumous releases are nothing new to modern audiences, who watched Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight in the summer of 2008, months after his accidental overdose death. A day after Houston's death, Amy Winehouse's parents accepted a Grammy Award for her duet with Tony Bennett, Body and Soul, which appeared on the crooner's best-selling album Duets II.
The cache of rehearsal footage for his comeback concerts that Jackson left behind when he died in June 2009 helped his estate dig out of debt and showed the world the first images of Jackson performing that it had seen in years. Concert promoter AEG Live released 30-seconds of footage a week after the singer's death and the hundreds of hours of video were crafted into This Is It, which not only demonstrated the King of Pop's showmanship, but also aided prosecutors who secured an involuntary manslaughter conviction against the singer's personal physician.
Clips from the film were played for jurors during last year's trial of Dr. Conrad Murray, and even a defense attorney had to admit after watching unreleased footage that it didn't show the singer was impaired as Murray's team had hoped it would.
Sony Pictures Entertainment, which will distribute Sparkle, declined to comment for this story or say whether it planned to release any footage of Houston's singing before the film's release.
The movie is a remake of a 1976 film written by Joel Schumaker and Rosenman, who said it became a cult favorite in the African-American community because of its complex characters during an era when so-called "blaxploitation" films focused on caricatures. The upcoming version co-stars Jordin Sparks, who rose to fame after winning the sixth season of American Idol.
Sparks has not commented on Houston's death or her work with the singer on the film. Jakes said Houston seemed to bring her own experiences to her role, in which she plays a singer trying to raise her children in the church so they avoid some of the mistakes she made during her career.
"Whitney brings to the character such a sense of knowingness," Jakes said. By the time the film and soundtrack are released, some of the questions surrounding Houston's demise should be answered. Although investigators found some prescription medications in Houston's hotel room, officials are awaiting the results of toxicology tests before determining her cause of death. Jakes said although he wasn't on set every day, he never saw Houston act unprofessionally.
"I certainly got the feeling she was trying to reposition her life and move forward with more focus and commitment to her faith," he said. Although famous for her love songs, Houston began singing in church in New Jersey, where her mother, Grammy-winning gospel singer Cissy Houston, led a choir for many years.
Whitney Houston apparently felt comfortable returning to those roots in recent months. In addition to her work in Sparkle, she sang Yes, Jesus Loves Me for an audience in Hollywood two days before her death. It was her final performance.