At first glance, Joyful Noise looks like every competitive performance movie of the past two or three decades. The basic components look to be ground up and mixed with gospel music, the newest genre to join street dancing (Step Up 2 the Streets), cheerleading (Bring It On), and glee club (Glee), as means for budding stars to find themselves through trouncing rivals. It looks like just another movie where it all goes down at nationals.
But Joyful Noise has something going for it besides the comfort of familiarity: writer-director Todd Graff. He made his debut with the indie teenage musical Camp, which he followed with the charming, under-seen Bandslam, in which teenagers took part in a battle-of-the-bands competition. In both cases, he’s made real musicals out of worn-out material, movies that are at once scrappy and heartfelt.
Joyful Noise is like Graff’s earlier movies, though it’s his first to give adults as much screen time as teenagers, maybe more. It opens on the Divinity Church Choir at the National Joyful Noise Competition, giving it their all. When choir director Bernie (Kris Kristofferson) suffers a heart attack and dies during the performance, his outspoken wife G.G. (Dolly Parton), a wealthy church donor in sleepy Pacashau, Georgia, expects to be hired as his replacement. She’s more than a little disappointed when the honor goes to Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah), who keeps the gospel songs traditional and the arrangements tasteful.
This grown-up opposition provides a frame for the kids, Vi’s daughter Olivia (Keke Palmer) and G.G.‘s black-sheep grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordan). Naturally, they find each other attractive even as their elders are digging in as adversaries. Both the teens are decent and hardworking as well as cute: Randy also befriends Vi’s Asperger’s-afflicted son Walter (Dexter Darden), who joins the choir band, playing piano. G.G. and Vi Rose continue to clash over the direction of the choir, with Olivia and Randy taking G.G.‘s side, and the more conservative pastor (Courtney B. Vance) taking Vi’s.
This may sound like too many characters and conflicts for one gospel competition movie. But Graff spreads the screen-time among his ensemble, and he has an eye for casting supporting actors who look like real people, so the busy-ness sometimes works in his favor. He may be generous to a fault, creating so many characters that one must be killed off mid-movie in service of an odd running joke. He tries to tie everyone together by suggesting that for the economically depressed town of Pacashau, the choir winning a championship will be a major morale-booster, a bit of sentimental overreach, indicative of the movie’s tendency occasionally to go maudlin.
For the most part, though, that sentiment doesn’t come across as forced. The film has a core sincerity that allows Vi Rose to maintain her faith while still understanding Olivia’s mild rebellion. Instead of exaggerating Vi’s diva qualities, Latifah does a nice job of showing the way her traditionalist stubbornness has been formed by hardship, and how religion means a lot to her but perhaps less to her family; Vi’s fiery speech putting her daughter in her place brought my preview audience to spontaneous applause.
While Vi has surprising depth for this sort of movie, Joyful Noise goes almost suspiciously easier on G.G., as if treading lightly around Parton’s legendarily sunny reputation. Indeed, despite a few cracks from Vi about plastic surgery (all strung together in the trailer), the G.G. role is written to flatter Parton’s image as a folksy firecracker, and perhaps reintroduce her as a delightfully wacky grandma to a new generation. Playing more of a supporting role than you might guess from the ads, Parton does dust off her old-fashioned charm. But it must be said that the “procedures” Vi mentions with in-joke jest do limit her expressiveness; even when she attends her husband’s funeral early in the movie, her face remains mostly frozen.
With its large cast and shticky plain-folks wisdom (Latifah and Parton engage in n unofficial, movie-long folksy-homily competition on top of their debate over the choir’s direction), Joyful Noise isn’t as consistent a delight as Camp or Bandslam. But it shows genuine appreciation for music—as self-expression and source f community, letting songs play out in full, rather than truncating them to 90-second movie versions. At several points, it even pauses for simple tunes, as Latifah and Parton get one self-reflective showcase apiece: Latifah handles the traditional “Fix Me, Jesus,” while Parton contributes “From Here to the Moon and Back,” which she wrote herself.
That attention to musical performances, breaking up the melodrama and predictability, sets the movie, and Graff, apart. As worn-out as much of this material may be, other musicals might benefit from borrowing a bit of Joyful Noise‘s spirit.