''The Gospel" opens, as a gospel movie should, in midshout. The choir of Atlanta's fictional New Revelations church tears into ''He Reigns," the camera bounces off the walls with joy, and the audience settles in to be uplifted.
What follows is a letdown: a heartfelt but muddled melodrama about an R&B singer's crisis of faith and the church politics that ensnare him when he goes home to visit his dying father. Dramatically simplistic and crowded with too many characters saddled with too many motivations, Rob Hardy's film is at its best when it just steps back and lets the voices rip. ''When you sing in the choir, it's called praise," one character reminds the hero, and the movie, simply, isn't praiseworthy enough.
It's smooth stuff for a while, if overly hyperactive during the musical numbers. After an opener establishing the young David Taylor's estrangement from his churchaholic pop, Pastor Fred (Clifton Powell of ''Ray"), ''The Gospel" jumps ahead 15 years to find David (Boris Kodjoe) transformed into an LA-based soul stud with a hit single, a happily avaricious manager (Omar Gooding), and a fan base of panting women. Returning home after a discreet phone call from a family friend alerts him to father's delicate condition, the prodigal son steps gingerly into the church's Sunday services and its back-office war of succession. The spirit moves him and so does that cute singer in the front row.
Her name is Rain, played by Tamyra Gray with enough fire and vocal chops to back up the grousing over her unceremonious booting from ''American Idol" a few seasons back. Certainly she has more going on than Kodjoe, who's as handsome and as dull as a painted god. The movie gives Rain an adorable daughter (China Anne McLain), an estranged husband (Dwayne Boyd), and a split-screen love montage with David -- anything to keep these two from falling into bed. This is a ministry movie, after all, and its faith, in people as well as the Lord, is a pleasant change of pace.
''The Gospel" keeps piling on the subplots, though. David's childhood pal is now the Reverend Frank (Idris Elba of HBO's ''The Wire"), an ambitious Bible-pounder who wants to lead New Revelations into the 21st century, with himself as its all-media star. Before going to his reward, Pastor Fred passes Frank the baton, angering his longtime number two (Donnie McClurkin) and setting the stage for David to take a more prominent role. Meanwhile, Frank's wife, Charlene (Nona Gaye), alternates between Lady Macbeth machinations and tearful outbursts over her inability to have a child.
A little character ambiguity is a good thing, but Hardy's screenplay is just confused; by the end, you're not sure how you're supposed to feel about any of these people other than that they're all good souls at heart. Nice message, problematic storytelling, and when ''The Gospel" brings on real-life gospel stars like Yolanda Adams and Fred Hammond, the sonic explosion is tinged with a sense of relief. The movie's worth seeing if you're moved by the music, but bring some patience, too. God's eye is on the sparrow when it should have been on the script.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.