Joyful Noise (2012)
118 min., rated PG-13.
The diva casting of Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah probably won't go down as one of the most surefire, long-overdue comedic pairings, but writer-director Todd Graff's "Joyful Noise" is a congenial crowd-pleaser nonetheless. Graff has already made two unexpectedly engaging let's-put-on-a-show teen musicals, 2003's "Camp" and 2009's "Bandslam." And when he just lets his stars sing and the music take over, "Joyful Noise" hits the bull's-eye, as it's much more tolerable than its weepingly dreadful trailer would suggest. Think TV's "Glee" with Christian preachiness.
The small town of Pacashau, Georgia, is down on its luck. In his last breath before a fatal heart attack, Bernie Sparrow (Kris Kristofferon) tried leading the church choir to victory in the regional semi-finals before. His newly widowed wife, G.G. (Dolly Parton), hopes to be the replacement for choir director, but the pastor (Courtney B. Vance) and the church have already chosen Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah), Bernie's second-in-command. When G.G.'s shameless New York grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordan) shows up, he sets his eyes on Vi's innocent 16-year-old daughter Olivia (Keke Palmer) and shakes up the choir's choices of music before the Joyful Noise Choir Competition in Los Angeles.
If a film is bold enough to call itself "Joyful Noise," it better have upbeat, mellifluous musical numbers. The film does, and that's its major draw. When Parton and Latifah aren't sassing each other and throwing out dopey one-liners ("I'd call you stubborn, but that'd be an insult to mules!"), the film meanders onto about a dozen tangents, like a sermon, and stuffs all of its story points into an overlong 118 minutes. G.G. and Vi are inscrutable longtime rivals, apparently even before Vi was appointed choir director over G.G. Olivia and Randy cook up a secret puppy-love romance, at one point sneaking out to a club, where Olivia's would-be boyfriend Manny (Paul Woolfolk) wants to set his fists on Randy. Randy develops a friendship with Vi's son Walter (Dexter Darden), who has Asperger's and likes one-hit wonders like Stevie Wonder, and tutors him in piano. Vi works two jobs as a nurse and a waitress, while her husband (Jesse L. Martin) has left for the U.S. Army. And the town is in an economic depression with many stores going out of business. Also, there's a subplot involving choir member Earla (Angela Grovey) having sex with a fellow member and finding him dead in the morning, which is misguided and right out of a bad sitcom.
After a long on-screen hiatus since 1992's "Straight Talk," the big-haired Ms. Parton might look all dolled-up, but she still adds charm and personality to her caricatured G.G. Since Parton's synthetically modified face looks like it belongs in a wax museum, a few digs are thrown her way, but they're all in good fun. Latifah is always a strong presence, too, and she's very believable as a mother taking on a lot. Latifah and Parton each get their own fantasy solos, Latifah on the piano with "Fix Me, Jesus" and Parton performing a duet of "From Here to the Moon and Back" with her late husband. But G.G. and Vi's constant feuding is pure contrivance. A catfight in a diner, where G.G. barges into Vi's place of work and starts throwing ice and dinner rolls during their verbal feud, is especially broad and forced. The two younger performers, Jordan and Palmer, both have charisma and have soul in their voices. Jordan shares a few nice moments with Darden's Walter, playing The Last Banke's "Walk Away Renee" and T-Pain's "I'm In Love With A Stripper" on the piano. And Palmer's lead rendition of Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" is wonderful, and a duet of "Maybe I'm Amazed" is sublime.
It's so easy to mock a corny, earnest, well-meaning film like this, but one will be surprised to get a little more than they expected. Graff's exuberant direction helps, especially when his script is overstuffed and trite. A performance of Sly and the Family Stone's "I Want to Take You Higher," mashed up with tracks by Stevie Wonder, Usher, and Chris Brown, at the climactic competition is a musical highlight that'll make you stand up and cheer. Performed with enthusiasm and vivacious energy, "Joyful Noise" isn't a terrible January release. Even when you can't help but roll your eyes at the earnestness of it all, there's just enough toe-tapping music for the ears. So Amen to that.
Grade: C +