Mark Reviews Movies

Joyful Noise


1 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Todd Graff

Cast: Queen Latifah, Dolly Parton, Keke Palmer, Jeremy Jordan, Dexter Darden, Courtney B. Vance, Jesse L. Martin, Angela Grovey, Andy Karl, Dequina Moore, Kris Kristofferson

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some language including a sexual reference)

Running Time: 1:57

Release Date: 1/13/12

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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 12, 2012

There's an odd cycle to the flow of Joyful Noise. During the musical numbers, one wonders if and when the characters are ever going to stop singing and start talking. Then the singing ends, and when the characters start talking, we begin to wonder when they're going to start singing again. When they do, we remember why we wished they would have stopped singing in the first place.

The musical numbers are either bouncy and lengthy or lamenting and awkward, and the dialogue consists of two modes: expository and intentionally strange bits of good, old down-home wisdom that imply the characters might not be of entirely sound minds. On a tonal level, writer/director Todd Graff's formulaic story of a small-town gospel choir attempting to win a national championship is pandering. It panders to those who like their musical numbers occasionally interrupted with not-too-difficult story elements, to those who want their entertainment to have a "strong, moral backbone" without any true challenge to those ideas, and, of course, to those who think pop songs would be significantly improved if they were directed to a higher power (As the old joke goes, it's simple—just change all instances of "baby" to "Jesus").

The movie is sincere in its catering, to be sure, and that inevitably leads to an intrinsic simplicity in its characters and scenario. Each one serves the other in a frustrating co-dependent relationship; they could not exist isolated from each other. As a result, neither feels particularly authentic, and, as such, the movie is genuine in its inauthenticity.

The story begins with a song, as the choir from a church in Pacashau, Georgia, contends in a regional final for the annual "Joyful Noise" competition. Kris Kristofferson plays their choir director; after his name appears in the opening credits, he's on screen just long enough for his character to suffer a heart attack (Counting this scene and a ghostly duet, photographs of Kristofferson have about as much screen time as he does).

With the body barely cold, the director's widow, the wealthy G.G. Sparrow (Dolly Parton, who, for trivia buffs, hasn't had a lead role in a theatrical release in 20 years), is already discussing her future with the church choir with the pastor (Courtney B. Vance). In fact, the scene in which she attempts to wiggle her way into the now vacant role of choir director comes immediately after the memorial service.

To repeat: Just after her husband's sudden and untimely death, G.G. is playing politics in an attempt to take her dead husband's job. Here is our first clue that the characters have no existence outside of the plot, and actually, in this case, the character isn't even reacting to a key point of the plot (Another death in the choir later on leads to a similarly heartless and selfish reaction). The time for mourning—it turns out—is best saved for a lull in the story and, hence, an opportunity for a song.

Anyway, the pastor decides that Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah) is the best choice to replace G.G.'s husband, which is news that G.G. doesn't take too well. The two are rivals for no other reason than that there must be some form of conflict outside of the competition. Vi doesn't like the way G.G. treats others as beneath her on account of her fortune; G.G. doesn't like the way Vi treats others as beneath her on account of her holier-than-thou attitude. It should come as no surprise to anyone that, since they and their prejudices against each other are so alike, there will eventually be a friendly bond between them (They both also share a connection of participating in separate, otherworldly songs of sorrow—Vi with an angelic choir, G.G. with her dead husband in a perfect spotlight of moonlight). It might come as a surprise that Graff's script resorts to a food fight before the two characters can get to that point.

The primary subplot involves Vi's daughter Olivia (Keke Palmer), whom Vi keeps under a close watch, and G.G.'s grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordan), who comes from the big city to shake things up in the choir with his devil-may-care attitude and awareness of contemporary music. There's a semi-sweet if obvious romance with, naturally, enough complications to add some more unnecessary conflict (He teachers Olivia's brother Walter (Dexter Darden), who has Asperger syndrome, to play the piano and gets on Vi's bad side when Walter helps him in a fight).

Events unfold as anticipated, and there's a big, show-stopping number—a medley of more pop songs than a small-town choir could buy the rights for (The real epilogue should take place in court). There's a bit of an unexpected turn with the revelation of their main competition, which gives them an actual dilemma to worry about: There's seemingly no way the other choir could lose, and if their choir wins, they'll look like jerks. Sadly, Joyful Noise can't even find the obvious humor in that catch-22.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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