Joyful Noise, which stars Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton as two rival members of an ambitious, small-town gospel choir, is an unholy mess.
The movie’s excess of subplot diversions, pointless minor characters and homespun sayings (an attempt at broad comedy) can’t hide the fact there’s no real discernible storyline. It’s like listening to a soloist who can’t carry a tune – she may be backed by an ensemble of top-notch musicians but her voice still wanders all over the place as you cringe in your seat.
Luckily, the four main stars of Joyful Noise can sing, and frequently do. The mostly rousing and tightly arranged gospel numbers, some of which rework the lyrics of familiar R&B tunes, always play out as fully finished numbers. And there are a few roof-raising numbers performed by real gospel choirs that provide a welcome distraction from the movie’s many woes.
Curiously, there are no true rehearsal scenes in this movie. It’s not about process – nor religion, for that matter – it’s about winning. The Pacashau Divinity Church Choir is the four-time runner-up of a regional gospel singing competition leading up to the national finals. This year they have to win the regional or the church will withdraw its financial support for future efforts. Rather than exploit the competition’s plot momentum potential director-writer Todd Graff ( Bandslam) buries it for a long stretch. With so many unrelated bits of business floating around, the movie drifts aimlessly.
In the opening sequence, the choir’s leader (an odd cameo by Kris Kristofferson) dies and soloist Vi Rose (Latifah) is appointed director by the pastor (a righteously annoying weak character) to the dismay of the feisty G. G. Sparrow (Parton), the former leader’s wife who is also the church’s main benefactor. The movie tells us Vi and G.G. have a long-standing hate-on; poor Latifah, who does her best with her unlikeable character, is forced to shoot some cruel barbs about plastic surgery at Parton. The movie never explains the root of this feud, so their various squabbles – including a ridiculously long catfight in the middle of a restaurant – seem shallow.
While Vi and G.G. don’t get along, their younger relatives make romantic sparks. Vi’s 16-year-old daughter Olivia, the choir’s star soloist, is played with demure charm by Keke Palmer ( Akeelah and the Bee). G.G.’s grandson Randy, the outsider who shakes up the choir’s traditional style with his arrangements, is played by newcomer Jeremy Jordan; he projects an energy better suited to the Broadway stage than this movie. Their unfathomable romance follows the typical model: They instantly fall in love, but external pressures cause them to break up.
Reconciliation, I suppose, is the underlying theme of Joyful Noise. When the choir learns the winner of the regional contest was filled with professional ringers, they are suddenly back on track to perform in the national competition in L.A. Aside from Vi’s battles with G.G., major tension builds in the mother-daughter relationship – with Vi blasting some truly unjoyful noise at Olivia in the middle of a hotel corridor.
Unfortunately, it’s the healing power of winning, not music, that is required to bring Joyful Noise to its wound-healing, rivalry-ending amen.
Special to The Globe and Mail
- Directed and written by Todd Graff
- Starring Queen Latifah, Dolly Parton, Keke Palmer, Jeremy Jordan and Kris Kristofferson
- Classification: PG
- 1 star
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