The promise of a musical number with Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah in it may cause some to stuff cheese in their ears and run for the proverbial hills for cover. Others may welcome the idea as a chance for some vocal chemistry and sparkle on screen. Add in the gospel-singing aspect, and there should be a lot to rejoice about with writer-director Todd Graff’s Joyful Noise. True, a good-natured Parton smile can lighten up the dullest of moments, but after that magic is all used up, Graff’s new film has very little cinematic substance, apart from a good toe-tapping tune or two, and feels like a monumental rip-off of Sister Act proportions.
Set in austerity-hit, small-town Georgia, after the sudden death of choir master Bernard Sparrow (Kris Kristofferson), his glamorous and cantankerous wife G.G (Parton) and her choir nemesis, the fiercely independent Vi Rose Hill (Latifah) find they are loggerheads over who will take over. Old-fashioned Pastor Dale (Courtney B. Vance) awards the job to Vi Rose who only wants to do the old numbers in a choral national competition they always lose in – much to G.G’s dismay. But the group’s direction gradually takes a new turn with the arrival of G.G’s grandson from New York, Randy (Jeremy Jordan), who falls for over-protective Vi Rose’s teenage daughter Olivia (Keke Palmer) and befriends her Aspergers Syndrome-suffering son, Walter (Dexter Darden). As times change for all, the members reassess what is important while keeping their eyes on the ultimate prize.
Parton fans should be warned that their diminutive, blonde-coiffured heroine takes more of a backseat in this: This is a Latifah-led film with all the film’s problems (in the literal sense) relating to her and her actions. That’s not so say there aren’t moments of joyful noisy bliss to enjoy, such as the diner bust-up between the pair’s characters that allows Dolly to deliver a few self-mocking winks in her own direction. The trouble is the rest of the time – when it isn’t trying to coax you into the concocted cosy fakery of the nearest Evangelical church – is witnessing Latifah crashing around like an angry mother bee, stomping on any fun or character development and trying to have the last smug line.
The majority of the staged scenarios feel totally unreal, such as when Randy defies all odds to reach out to Walter in record time and ‘cure’ his aliment and social fears: Yes, the healing power of music is strong, but the duration in which it happens in is totally incredible – almost ludicrous. There is also the slapstick side joke of the choir member who is highly lucky in love, committing the cardinal sin of sex before marriage that wears thin before the end punch line is delivered (and we’ve long lost interest).
The rest of the film is as predictable as it comes. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing when you easily fall into the musical medleys that combine a number of music genres – and some original tracks for Dolly fans, plus every character forgets their woes (and their bad acting) when the music starts. But the fact that the plot is recycled pulp with a group finding unity and happiness after an injection of outside help then goes on to be triumphant (sound familiar?) makes the whole premise feel tired, in addition to the processed gospel-Glee scenarios for young love to flourish etc. There is also the grating factor that yet again only the youth have any fresh ideas worth listening to, which of a film targeting all generations is a bit rich.
Joyful Noise is disarmingly heart-warming in its musical prowess and lazy in its storytelling development, hoping that the former – plus the big names – will attract a large enough crowd to keep it buoyant at the box office. This may well be the case. However well intentioned in its proposed aim to focus people’s attention away from personal austerity woes for the duration of its run-time, it simultaneously berates us for losing our faith in the church – like a subtle message from Christian Middle America. Again, this may not be criticism as such when it does it in such an outright corny fashion. But a good sing-a-long never hurt anyone either, and this is its only driving force.