Had “Joyful Noise” been directed by alternative filmmaking auteur John Waters of “Hairspray” fame it would have worked much better. But under the control of director Todd Graff (“Bandslam”) it proves to be an odd and even surreal mix of musical and 1980s nostalgia. It’s fun only when it does not try to be serious, and the over the top joyful noises consisting of choir stage performances are worth the price of admission.
Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah) and G. G. Sparrow (Dolly Parton) are competing members of a church choir in a rural Georgia town. When G. G’s husband (Kris Kristofferson) dies of a heart attack during a choir competition, the pastor (Courtney B. Vance) taps Vi Rose as the new choir director. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with G. G., who feels that she is her husband’s rightful successor. When G. G.’s grandson, Randy (Jeremy Jordan), shows up from New York City, having been kicked out by his mother, he is instantly smitten with Vi Rose’s talented daughter. And guess what? Randy just happens to have a golden voice and some fresh ideas giving the choir a chance to take first place in the national competition.
Matching Queen Latifah with Dolly Parton on the top of the marquee is certainly a risky high-concept idea. After all, their musical genres are anything but similar. The Queen has had a much better acting career arguably having more range than the country music icon. The script smartly makes use of both talents on stage during musical numbers and during dramatic exchanges. The dialogue is steeped in idiom, which gets old quick, and exposes Parton’s one-note acting talent. Latifah does all the heavy lifting from an acting perspective and while she is more than up to the challenge, the writing, which goes for low rent laughs and false emotions, fails to take advantage of her abilities.
The real problem with “Joyful Noise” is that it straddles the fence between musical parody and exploitative dramedy. Had Graff and his team just completely given into the comic goofiness of it all, the movie would have been something special. As is, it comes off as much of a mixed bag. The musical numbers work, but the melodrama is of the eye-rolling variety. It is too bad that the entire movie hadn’t been more of a musical, because the down-right soapy story could have been excusable had the stereotyped and vernacular driven dialogue been surrounded by dancing and singing. With the exception of two songs performed by the stars, all of the musical bits take place on stage. Thus, characterizing “Joyful Noise” as a musical would be inaccurate. The movie is a cheap comedy drama punched up by rousing stage performances.
At times, it seemed like the story would slip completely into parody. A romance between an over-weight African American character and a skinny Asian American character that doesn’t end well hints at something possibly subversive. But the story again doesn’t go far enough, and on the heels of dark comedy with get sappy melodrama. The writing plays around the edges of race and income inequality but the film never wants to deal with those issues even satirically in any meaningful way.
What does work is the pairing of Latifah and Parton. The comedy doesn’t shy away from poking fun at Parton for all her plastic surgery, and one effective exchange addresses the Queen’s weight and perception of beauty. There is a sequence in the film where the church choir takes a church school bus from Georgia to California for the final competition. Parton’s character, who is rich, takes a plane. I immediately thought of the missed comic opportunities had she ridden along with Latifah and the poor folk. Just image the laughs to be had with Latifah and Parton locked together in a school bus on a two thousand plus mile journey? Alas, that’s one high-concept road trip project that will never come to pass.
“Joyful Noise” is not the movie it should have been but toe-tapping none-the-less.
Atlanta area filmmakers and actors take note: our favorite ubiquitous character actor Steve Warren has a great scene with the Queen in this one. It is a memorable if icky moment.