Film Review: “Joyful Noise”

by Jason LeRoy on January 13, 2012

Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah in JOYFUL NOISE

starring: Queen Latifah, Dolly Parton, Keke Palmer, Jeremy Jordan, Dexter Dardin, Courtney B. Vance, Jesse L. Martin, Kris Kristofferson, Dequina Moore

written and directed by: Todd Graff

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for some language including a sexual reference

I get the sense that some folks are looking for permission to go see Joyful Noise, as if they need someone to say it’s okay. The basic premise – a musical comedy starring Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton as power-hungry sassmouths battling for control of a church choir – should sound like must-see viewing to all but the most joy-hating of audiences. I mean, come on. Granted, much of this interest is more about the giddy anticipation of high-spirited camp than any expectation of it actually being a good movie. So, does it at least succeed on those terms? Oh yes — and then some.

The setting is Pacashau, Georgia, a podunk little town buckling under the weight of a poor economy. The downtrodden townspeople place their hope and faith in the suspiciously multicultural choir at their local Christian church of unspecified denomination. It is a major player on the church choir competition circuit (which is apparently a thing), and is participating in one such competition as the film begins. But when their director (Kris Kristofferson) dies suddenly, the church pastor (Courtney B. Vance) appoints choir member Vi Rose (Queen Latifah) to take over as the new choirmaster. This is much to the chagrin of G.G. (Dolly Parton), the director’s widow, a major church donor who also sings in the choir and hoped to fill her husband’s role.

As if Vi Rose and G.G. weren’t already primed for conflict, G.G.’s devilishly charming bad-boy grandson, Randy (confident newcomer Jeremy Jordan, not to be confused with this Jeremy Jordan who stole my prepubescent heart), shows up to help modernize the choir and romance Vi’s talented good-girl daughter, Olivia (a strong Keke Palmer). He also proves a natural at drawing out Vi’s frustrated son Walter (Dexter Dardin), whose Asperger’s tends to isolates him. But Vi’s control issues are considerably inflamed by Randy, viewing him as an extension of G.G.’s meddling, and she risks alienating her friends and family by strictly clinging to her small-minded views about how the choir – and her family – should be.

Joyful Noise gets a bit bogged down by its refusal to just be the toe-tapping good time audiences are expecting. Writer/director Todd Graff spends entirely too much screen time developing the many layers of Vi Rose; consequently, the film runs a bit long at nearly two full hours. Her “control issues” are spoken of with enough gravity to suggest an episode of Intervention; she has a jarringly dramatic scene with her son about his Asperger’s that is entirely too heavy for this context; we also get a full back-story about her estranged marriage to military man Marcus (Jesse L. Martin, whose romantic scenes with Latifah positively sizzle! #sarcasm). Maybe some of this was negotiated by the Oscar-nominated Latifah in search of a juicier and more three-dimensional role, but this simply isn’t that kind of movie. We just want to watch her make sassy jokes about Dolly’s plastic surgery and nails. Can we have more of that please? Those parts are great.

We’re also treated to a generous helping of soulful musical numbers. Graff previously showed his deft touch with powerhouse song-and-dance numbers in his excellent directorial debut Camp, which touched on gospel in its great “Here’s Where I Stand”, so his sensibilities certainly click with this material. The musical sequences run the gamut from the sublime (Latifah accompanying herself on piano to “Fix Me Jesus,” which is admittedly a bit uncomfortable to hear from one of the world’s most famously closeted women) to the unabashedly uncool (a gospel rewrite of Usher’s “Yeah!”) to the Dolly, a place that exists forever between the two. Parton only has one big number, a cheesy yet utterly heartfelt duet with Jordan that morphs into a duet with Kristofferson, an unexpected power-coup for ’70s country enthusiasts.

Graff displays a working understanding of two major things about church music: (1) love songs and worship songs are often only distinguished from one another by which direction the singer’s eyes are cast, and (2) while church folks may be known to the outside world for fighting the culture wars, their most savage barbs are reserved for their internal battles — which are frequently about music. He flirts with un-churched mainstream accessibility by including a sampling of “secular” songs (“Man in the Mirror,” “Maybe I’m Amazed”), while not shying away from showing young dynamo Ivan Kelley, Jr., speaking in tongues during his rousing rendition of “That’s The Way God Planned It,” which will likely be a bit too Jesus Camp for some audiences.

And then, of course, there is the heaven-sent matter of Dolly Parton, making her first appearance in a theatrical release since 1992’s Straight Talk. What can you criticize about Dolly? Nothing, that’s what. The role of G.G. plays perfectly to Parton’s comic strengths while allowing her to remain in full Dolly drag for the entire film. Any questions about Parton maybe toning it down a bit are answered the first time we see her, resplendent in a skin-tight choir robe with barely enough fabric to accommodate her famously volleyball-sized breasts. Does anyone else in the choir have fitted robes? Do you even need to ask? The rest of her wardrobe follows suit; God’s eye may be on the sparrow, but ours is on Dolly’s tits. She is also a good enough sport about her very obvious (and, given everything she’s ever said about herself, not at all surprising) plastic surgery to participate in on-screen jokes about it. She is a national treasure, simultaneously humble and folksy yet eccentric and not of this earth, and it is a joy to see her on the big screen once again.

Joyful Noise is a giddy good time, a pure-hearted exercise in easy but genuine gospel catharsis in which redemption is never more than a song away. It is overstuffed with drama and a story that stretches on far longer than it needs to, as though Graff either failed to understand what kind of movie he was making or simply refused to let it be that kind of movie. It certainly isn’t smart or nuanced enough to capture the depth of emotion Graff strives to achieve, but it was clearly made with passion and joy, boasting enough humor and spirit to carry its more portentous elements. It is hokey and cheesy and silly, but gloriously so. It is the kind of film for which blurbs like “It will make audiences will stand up and cheer!” were written.

Joyful Noise opens nationwide today.

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