After two music-themed films that were better than you'd expect, writer/director Todd Graff has hit a sour note with Joyful Noise. This overlong and forgettable comedy about a gospel choir is so uninspiring that I'm not even concerned about using the "sour note" cliche. The movie deserves no better!
Graff's Camp and Bandslam were refreshing in the way they addressed teenagers without pandering to them, depicting a summer theater camp and a battle-of-the-bands competition, respectively, with honesty and affection. They weren't great movies, but they had some life to them. In contrast, Joyful Noise feels phony and pointless, a muddle of discarded Glee subplots.
At least it has the good fortune of being enacted with enthusiasm by a very appealing cast, or else it would be completely unbearable instead of just mundane. That cast is headed by Queen Latifah and, of all people, Dolly Parton, who has not appeared on the big screen since 1992's Straight Talk. (She had a role in 2002's Frank McKlusky, C.I., but I can't find any proof that it actually played in American theaters.) Both women get a chance to do what they do best -- sing and be sassy -- so you can understand why it appealed to them. Beyond that, it's hard to say.
They play parishioners and choir members at a holy-rolling church in Podunk, Georgia. It is a very folksy place, the kind of town where people deliver a lot of homespun wisdom that begins with "My mama always said" and "My daddy always told me," and where many of the colloquial sayings involve chickens. Vi Rose Hill (Latifah) is a working mother whose husband is doing a stint in the Army, leaving her to handle their high-school-age children alone. G.G. Sparrow (Parton) is a rich grandma whose husband is the choir director. He's played by Kris Kristofferson. Do you like Kris Kristofferson? TOO BAD! He dies during the opening credits.
Vi Rose is appointed as the new choir director, a snub that might lead to friction between her and G.G. except that the movie quickly forgets it and goes somewhere else. The choir is a perennial runner-up in a national competition, but they're hoping this might finally be their year to taste sweet victory. Vi Rose is perceived as too tame a director, though, and won't let her daughter, Olivia (Keke Palmer), really let loose and dazzle everybody. She feels such a display would be inappropriate when the point is to praise God -- a philosophy that would make sense if the choir weren't primarily singing pop songs that don't mention God anyway. (Foremost among them: Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror.") Vi Rose has some concerns about the specific musical arrangements, too, but I was never able to tell the difference between the ones that were OK and the ones that weren't. They're all loud and exuberant and involve piano, drums, guitars, and a horn section. Are certain chords unholy? Are certain keys unsuitable for worship?
Meanwhile, G.G.'s teenage grandson, Randy (Jeremy Jordan), has come to town, wooing Olivia and allegedly causing trouble, though the movie is pretty scant on details of just how Randy's presence is a problem. He seems like a decent kid to me. He uses the power of music to help Vi Rose's other kid, Walter (Dexter Darden), come out of his Asperger's Syndrome shell. Vi Rose and G.G. quarrel about some things. And so on.
Littered throughout all of this are about a dozen half-considered plot threads. There's Earla (Angela Grovey), a choir member who's unlucky at love. There's the town's economic depression, symbolized by Caleb (Andy Karl), another chorister, who might lose his job. (The other singers in the choir don't even get that much detail.) There's Manny (Paul Woolfolk), the boy who likes Olivia and sees Randy as a threat. There's some nonsense about Vi Rose's husband (Jesse L. Martin) and his reasons for reenlisting.
The result is a seriously cluttered movie, one that spends just enough time on each thing to make you think it's going to develop it, but not enough time to make it interesting. Is it a story about Vi Rose and G.G.'s rivalry? Is it about the young romance between Olivia and Randy? Is it a drama about Vi Rose's family? Is it the choir's pursuit of victory? It is all of these things, and more! No, actually, it is none of these things, and less.
But the cast has spirit, and a few of the many, many musical numbers are infectious. Parton radiates enthusiasm and affection, clearly enjoying herself, and is even game for some jokes about her obvious plastic surgery. ("I am who I am!" G.G. declares, to which Vi Rose replies, "Maybe you were five procedures ago.") Latifah is saddled with an ill-defined character, but she delivers one powerhouse speech to her daughter late in the film that makes up for it. For the first 20 minutes or so, Joyful Noise is a pleasant little down-home hootenanny. Then it gets lost in its jumble of bland subplots and grows tedious, making us look anxiously at our watches as we wonder when this preacher is going to wrap things up.