(by Dustin Putman
Writer-director Todd Graff has an ear for music and an empathy for human interaction, gifts that have made his two previous films, 2003's beatifically melodious indie "Camp" and 2009's shamefully overlooked "Bandslam," unequivocal winners. "Joyful Noise" is, perhaps, the most formulaic of the three, a little unwieldy at 118 minutes for what is a reasonably fluffy concoction, but totally infectious whenever an actor opens his or her mouth to sing. As TV's irresistible "Glee" can attest, sometimes a song is all that is needed to miraculously make a dusty plot fresh again. So it goes here, as Queen Latifah (2010's "Just Wright") and Dolly Parton, the latter in her first lead studio role since 1992's "Straight Talk," join forces for a choir competition yarn that's one part acerbic comedy, another part church-based drama, and wholly, unashamedly sincere. For a mid-January release, one could do a whole lot worse. Article continues below
When her beloved husband Bernard (Kris Kristofferson) passes away from a heart attack, G.G. Sparrow (Dolly Parton)—the wealthiest member of her congregation in Pacashau, Georgia—naturally expects that she will take his place as the church's choir director. Instead, Pastor Dale (Courtney B. Vance) hands the reigns down to second-in-command Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah). Vi Rose and G.G. mix about as well as oil and water, and their sparring relationship only strains further when G.G.'s newly-arrived "bad boy" grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordan) joins the choir and takes a liking to Vi Rose's 16-year-old daughter Olivia (Keke Palmer). It all comes down to the "Joyful Noise Choir Competition" in Los Angeles, where Vi Rose's shy 15-year-old son Walter (Dexter Darden), an Asperger's Syndrome sufferer, may finally gain the courage to break from his self-made shell.
In addition to the central tournament, "Joyful Noise" is filled to bursting with story tangents, some successful, others not so much. Generally, all of the material dealing with Vi Rose and her family is poignantly realized by never coming off as forced. A stubborn but loving woman whose daughter doesn't have her as figured out as she thinks, Vi Rose struggles to support her kids (she has three jobs) while moving between longing and resentment for a husband, Marcus (Jesse L. Martin), who walked out on the family by reenlisting in the military at the age of thirty-five. Her relationships with Olivia and Walter are warmly felt, scenes between both of them bringing an unusual depth and familiarity not always seen in moviedom's mother-child bonding. Especially affecting is Walter's fear that his Asperger's Syndrome has left him a disappointment and his anger in God for making him the way he is. Suggestions that Walter's conflicts run deeper than his disorder—he may be gay and harboring a crush on Randy, though it's never explicitly established—add an intriguing component to its religious-influenced heartland milieu, but the film isn't quite prepared to confront it head-on since this is being billed as a faith-based comedy that Red Staters will probably eat up. Dexter Darden (2008's "Cadillac Records") is an ingratiating find as Walter, dodging the temptation to overdo his character's Asperger's. His love of one-hit wonders—his favorite is The Left Banke's "Walk Away Renee"—is an especially clever way of paralleling his own feelings of not fitting in.
The teenage romance shared by Olivia and Randy is filled with all the electricity that comes with two people meeting and falling for one another, and Keke Palmer (2008's "The Longshots") and Broadway performer Jeremy Jordan (in his feature debut) are pure, endearing, and soulful in their song performances. Palmer's rendition of Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" is an unpredictably emotional show-stopper, while her and Jordan's duet of Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed" is just as understated yet thrilling. Queen Latifah, in her fullest, most memorable role in almost ten years, is wonderful as Vi Rose, her overbearing ways coming from a place of love even if she herself has made mistakes and has just as much to learn as her daughter. Latifah's piano ballad "Fix Me Jesus" is stunning until the spell wears off by a single line she speaks following the song that is unnecessary and too on the nose.
As for Dolly Parton, this is a welcome return to film following a too-long hiatus. She still looks great for a 65-year-old woman (digs at her plastic surgery are taken in good spirit, even if a scene where she and Vi Rose spar at a restaurant feels forced) and Parton's vivacious, sunny personality is still very much shining. The part of G.G. Sparrow is the most underwritten of the leads, however, the loss she feels when her husband dies not really paid attention to until late in the proceedings when she performs a duet with her late husband, "From Here to the Moon and Back." More toe-tapping is the grand finale at the competition finals, most of the cast getting their individual moments to stand out in a medley that combines Sly & the Family Stone's "I Want to Take You Higher" with tracks from Usher, Chris Brown, and Stevie Wonder.
When the music is flowing and the actors are doing their stuff, "Joyful Noise" accurately lives up to its title. Also appreciative is the considerate handling of religion in a way that does not alienate any audience members; the characters' values may be based in belief and faith, but the picture makes its respective points without turning overtly preachy. It's the best of both worlds. Take that away, and what we have is a remarkably thin story without much at stake. The reasons for Randy running away from home and coming to stay with his grandma are tiptoed over, while a subplot involving lonely choir member Earla's (Angela Grovey) guilt when the person she brought home the night before turns up dead in her bed is like broad schtick from a different, sillier movie altogether. As the climax edges closer, certain scenes tend to go on longer than they should; there's no reason director Todd Graff couldn't have shaved twenty minutes off the running time. What Graff can do with a solid actor and a simple song, though, is enough to make up for the occasional rough edges. "Joyful Noise" can be routine, but that's not necessarily a bad thing when it's done well.