Praise the gospel singing, not the plot: Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton get the spirit in ‘Joyful Noise’
Hot gospel singing and earnest family squabbles are all that distinguish “Joyful Noise,’’ a pew-pounding musical drama starring Queen Latifah, Keke Palmer, and the skeletal remains of Dolly Parton. Todd Graff’s film has been made possible by the success of “Glee’’ on television, and the up-tempo pop revisionism of that show gets a churchy makeover here. Paul McCartney’s 1970 hit “Maybe I’m Amazed’’ as a paean to the Lord? Only if the singer can sell it like she believes it. Which she does, thank God.
The singer in question is Olivia Hill, played by Palmer, who five years ago was the little girl in “Akeelah and the Bee.’’ At 18, Palmer sings like she’s tearing something inside her up by the roots, and she has a sad, watchful face that occasionally lights up with 1,000-watt joy. The movie doesn’t give her much to be happy about. Olivia’s mother, Vi (Latifah), has taken over the leadership of the Divinity Church choir in the tiny, economically flattened town of Pacashau, Ga., and she’s a force of nature who favors old-fashioned choral arrangements and old-fashioned parenting.
“Joyful Noise’’ sets up a conflict between Vi and the church’s benefactor, G.G. Sparrow (Parton, in her first major movie role in two decades), whose choir-leader husband, played by Kris Kristofferson, has dropped dead within seconds of the actor’s name appearing in the opening credits. G.G. has spunk, an ear for new sounds, and a good-bad grandson, Randy (Jeremy Jordan) - pronounced “Ray-un-day’’ - who falls for Olivia. What she doesn’t have is any material to remind you that this woman sang gritty country heartbreakers like “Jolene’’ way back in the early ’70s. Parton is doing blond Cher here, face-lift jokes and all, and that’s a waste of a perfectly good legend.
Graff is a former actor who now specializes in writing and directing let’s-put-on-a-show throwbacks to the days of Mickey and Judy. His first was 2003’s awkward but adorable “Camp,’’ his second the slicker but still engaging “Bandslam’’ (2009). The more professional Graff gets as a filmmaker, the more formulaic his movies have become, and “Joyful Noise’’ is as predictable as an EKG, its beats of mother-daughter struggle and star-crossed romance Lite coming in steady, timeworn fashion. The movie’s better than its trailer - it’d have to be - but not nearly enough.
The few wrinkles are weird but welcome: Vi’s other child, Walter (Dexter Darden), has Asperger’s syndrome and is assigned the role of the Shy Kid Who the Hero Brings Out of His Shell. Jesse L. Martin (TV’s “Law & Order’’) turns up as the children’s father, estranged from Vi and serving in the military. The movie is well aware that hard times in poor towns affect everyone regardless of race, and the hope in those upraised voices is a response to something dark and real.
But then Graff will throw in a diner catfight between Vi and G.G., or bring Kristofferson back from the dead for a moonlight dance with Parton (the actor’s effectively this movie’s Jesus, and I guess I can live with that), and you can tell he’s aiming for the schlock that sells.
The musical numbers are the meat, even if Vi spends most of the running time trying to tamp the choir’s spirits and stem the dreaded pop crossover. (That doesn’t even make sense: Hasn’t this woman ever listened to Aretha?) “Joyful Noise’’ tackles songs as varied as Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,’’ the traditional spiritual “Fix Me Jesus,’’ and Chris Brown’s “Forever,’’ but it finds its most lasting groove when the choir hits the national competition. There we’re treated to gospel great Kirk Franklin going all James Brown on “In Love,’’ which Franklin wrote, and a children’s choir led by Ivan Kelley Jr. taking Billy Preston’s “That’s the Way God Planned It’’ through the rafters.
Is it a sin to wish the movie had been about them?