In his third musical driven drama, director Todd Graff (“Camp,” “Bandslam”) returns to theaters with “Joyful Noise.” Full of some big names and upbeat gospel tunes “Joyful Noise” is the story of a small town church choir that is looking for a new leader after the untimely death of its former leader Bernard (Kris Kristofferson). There are two obvious choices — Bernard’s wife G.G. (Dolly Parton) and Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah) — but when Pastor Dale (Courtney B. Vance) bypasses G.G. in favor of Vi Rose, conflict erupts as they fight each other along the way.
A major disruption comes in the form of G.G.’s slick and cool grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordon) arrives in town and takes a liking to Vi Rose’s blossoming 16 year-old daughter, Olivia (Keke Palmer). As the group prepares for the next major competition, Vi has to deal with a son who has Aspergers Syndrome (Dexter Darden), a husband who is station away from home in military service, her daughter’s rebellious attitude and the upheaval of the choir’s willingness to stick with the same classical hymns and melodies that they have always done.
As Randy’s affections for Olivia grow, so does his involvement in the choir as he proves to be a talented singer. But his troubled past and connection to Vi Rose’s rival, who is jockeying for top spot in the group, seems too much for her to deal with. As the choir seems to be growing and changing, it appears to be doing so without the approval or acceptance of Vi Rose and also Pastor Dale.
Integrating new and contemporary songs into the roster with a bit of a gospel flair seems to be the only way this struggling small town choir can win the big competition. Will they be able to resolve their differences and work together as one voice before these petty quarrels threaten to dis-harmonize the group and lose them the chance to win big for their community that is in need of some hope and joy?
There are certain demographics this film is aiming for — those who love underdog competition films, lovers of gospel music and, of course, fans of the two leads, Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah. I would consider myself to be in two of those categories and as much as I enjoyed the music, and discovering some new very talented singers, the campy comedy mixed with a very distilled narrative and too many lackluster side plots dissolved any chance the movie had to truly move and involve its audience in the passions, emotions and victories of the protagonists on the screen.
Falling somewhere between “The Fighting Temptations” and “Sister Act,” “Joyful Noise” never reaches its full potential as a coming-of-age romance, underdog competition or even a true dramatic comedy. While Latifah and Parton go at it over and over again in arguments and fights, it’s funny but seems to be too light-hearted and never presents anything the audience knows they won’t overcome. The budding romance between Palmers and Jordan is sweet but seems too one-dimensional and although they make great music together, it seems that there are more prevalent topics touched on in the movie that could have used some more screen time.
As a whole, the story was passable, but the focus was never as clear as it should have been due to many subplots: a woman with a seeming black widow’s touch; the recession and how it affected the town; the many struggles of our lead characters; a secondary love interest for Olivia; and many others that never close to being fully realized.
As always, I loved Queen Latifah and her personality, which showcases many ranges of emotions. There were some really moving — as well as funny — examples in this film as she deals with some complicated feelings about her husband, her life and her children. Dolly Parton, for me, was a bigger hindrance to my overall enjoyment in the movie as she was to helping it out. Her plastic surgeries and overall look were constantly distracting me from focusing on anything else but her face in the scenes she was in. Another stumbling block to the film is that right in the middle of the film they have a few very slow songs bundled together and it brings the pace to a grinding halt, to which it almost never fully recovers.
For the music alone, I could recommend this movie, but as a complete film I cannot. If you plan on seeing “Joyful Noise,” it might be best to wait for it on DVD because, unfortunately, its weaknesses outweigh its strengths.
“Joyful Noise” — which also stars Jesse L. Martin, Angela Grovey, Francis Jue and Judd Lormand — makes its way into theaters Jan. 13.
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