Joyful Noise: Todd Graff’s Film Starring Queen Latifah

Pacashau, Georgia, the setting of the new film, “Joyful Noise,” represents Hollywood’s idea of small-town America circa 2012.

Of all institutions, it’s the church that holds this beat-down community together, while racial, sexual, class, and cultural tensions always threaten to explode.

But Pacashau is also a place where nothing ever gets too heavy or too intense, and that explosion—should it ever actually come—would surely fail to harm a soul.

After its choirmaster (Kris Kristofferson in a super brief cameo) suddenly dies, the Pacashau Sacred Divinity Choir is bereft of leadership. A mysteriously never-seen church council quickly anoints Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah) as new choirmaster—this over the choirmaster’s outspoken widow, G.G. Sparrow (Dolly Parton), who was expecting to be appointed herself.

Vi Rose is charged with pulling the downhearted choir members together and leading them to victory in the upcoming choir competitions, on which the very future of the group depends. Her principal challenge in this appears to be G.G., the two of them duking it out for most of the movie.

Vi Rose is the stubborn traditionalist, G.G. the troublemaker—and there is also their racial and class divide, G.G. being the richest lady in town.

At the same time, their offspring—Vi Rose’s daughter, Olivia (Keke Palmer), and G.G.’s grandson, Randy (Jeremy Jordan)—start a romance that, while never ringing true, predictably winds up somehow uniting Vi Rose and G.G., not to mention the choir, the church, and the entire community.

This energetic yet increasingly distracted and silly film is ultimately about the Vi Rose–G.G. catfight, its success dependent on how much fun their little war turns out to be.

Parton has not done much film work since her run of hits in the 1980s (remember “Nine to Five?”). She has some snappy lines on her return—as in “Trying to fool me is like trying to sneak sunrise past a rooster!”—but she is a comedienne of more depth than “Joyful Noise” apparently has use for.

The same goes for Latifah, who is much smarter than “Joyful Noise” and her recent films, such as “Just Wright” (2010), let on. Her bizarre yet impassioned rant at her daughter late in this film suggests a ferocious actor caged in the wrong movie and the wrong movie career.

Parton and Latifah work together well to make the most of the many Southernfried quips that director-writer Todd Graff has compiled for them. But their catfight, which reaches a slightly violent apex at a local diner, just never gets quite nasty enough.

The music in “Joyful Noise” is mostly of the peppy yet tiring “Glee” variety, delivered with much sloppy lipsyncing. Olivia and Randy shake the choir up, “Footloose”-style, by bringing complex choreography and funkiness and sexiness into the mix.

In a perplexing subplot, Randy starts to give piano lessons to Olivia’s brother, Walter (Dexter Darden), who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome. Walter is obsessed with the one-hit wonders of the music world, insists on wearing sunglasses at all times, and may have a crush on his sister’s boyfriend, who seems to magically cure him. “I just wish I could be normal for you, Mama,” Walter pathetically cries at one point.

There is obviously some major manipulation being attempted in this movie, with the Midwest/Southern Christian market seemingly the target. The film’s messages on faith and heart and getting the spirit are relentless. Statements like “If you quit now, you’re quitting on God” are scribbled all over “Joyful Noise.”

Graff could have made a better and funnier film by pushing the Vi Rose–G.G. face-off a little harder, keeping the focus firmly there, and dispensing with a lot of the hokum and ham-fisted religiosity that weighs this movie down.

When you have such vibrant and powerful performers as Queen Latifah, you don’t want to see her in a squeaky-clean town, locked in a harmless, movieish fairy tale.

Cast

Vi Rose Hill – Queen Latifah

G.G. Sparrow – Dolly Parton

Olivia Hill – Keke Palmer

Randy Garrity – Jeremy Jordan

Walter Hill – Dexter Darden

Pastor Dale – Courtney B. Vance

Marcus Hill – Jesse L. Martin

Credits

A Warner Bros. release.

Directed and written by Todd Graff.

Produced by Michael Nathanson, Joseph Farrell, Catherine Paura, Broderick Johnson, and Andrew A. Kosove.

Cinematography, David Boyd.

Editing, Kathryn Himoff.

Original Music, Mervyn Warren.

Running time: 117 minutes.