Think Glee with a religious twist. Joyful Noise, starring Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton, features all the rival divas, angsty romance and moving musical numbers of the hit TV show—plus the timing of a bad sitcom (sans laugh track) and the melodrama of a movie of the week. The rousing arrangements performed by both industry icons and fresh faces are the only saving graces in what’s otherwise a mess of slight plot and lazy dialogue—although you may find yourself laughing—hard—at how bad the jokes are.
Just as the Sacred Divinity Church Choir from Pacashau, Ga., makes it to regionals in the National Joyful Noise Competition, it loses its fearless leader Bernie (an awkward Kris Kristofferson, looking like he got dragged in on a favor) to a heart attack. The church board, led by Pastor Dale (Courtney B. Vance) selects Vi Rose Hill (Latifah) to replace him, passing over Bernie’s wife G.G. (Parton, in her first lead role in 20 years), a wealthy widow who controls the church’s purse strings. Times are hard, and without a win, the congregation can no longer go on funding the choir, but Vi Rose stays the course with a traditional repertoire and a philosophy that “I don’t care about hearing you. I want to hear God through you.” In other words, don’t get too flashy, a warning sternly directed at her daughter, Olivia (Keke Palmer).
Meanwhile, G.G.’s troublemaking nephew Randy (rising Broadway star Jeremy Jordan, a find) arrives, spies Olivia in the choir and decides to join. He’s got some killer arrangements that would jazz things up and give Divinity a shot at beating Detroit at regionals, but Vi Rose won’t have it. Will she come around in time to win—and save their town? (How, exactly, winning a national singing competition will open Main Street’s closed storefronts goes unexplored.)
There are also some subplots involving Vi Rose’s son Walter (Dexter Darden), whose Asperger’s symptoms are inconsistent and narratively convenient; her absent husband Marcus (Jesse L. Martin), who reupped with the Army when he couldn’t care for his family; and a really wacky romp between Earla (Angela Grovey) and Mr. Hsu (Francis Jue), an Asian with a pronounced Southern drawl. The production does deserve marks for assembling a diverse, realistic cast—not only are they multicultural but they look like the choir members in any small-town church.
But all this just marks time between show-stopping tunes that shine the spotlight on Palmer and Jordan especially. (The material doesn’t do her any favors as an actress, but this girl Palmer can sing!) The same was true of writer-director Todd Graff’s debut Camp: Here, the song’s the thing, and the church really gets rocking when the singers spiritualize secular songs (Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” and Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” among them).
Parton, who wrote three new tunes for the film’s soundtrack, is incapable of expressing emotion behind all that hair, makeup, plastic surgery and fitted robe (which are all fair game in the script), and she sounds highly produced when she does finally solo, but it just doesn’t feel right to watch her sing backup up until that point. Latifah too takes time to break free from her dowdy nurse scrubs, but when she does, she brings the house down, first with some of her zingers (particularly when she finally unleashes on petulant Olivia), then with Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” at the end of a medley that includes Sly Stone, Usher and Chris Brown. At nearly two hours, the film takes way too long to let Latifah and Parton loose, but it’s worth the wait.
Director: Todd Graff
Writer: Todd Graff
Starring: Queen Latifah, Dolly Parton, Keke Palmer, Courtney B. Vance, Jeremy Jordan & Kris Kristofferson
Release Date: Jan. 13, 2012