Even though it sports a queen and a dolly, this come-from-behind, gospel-music competition film is utterly common. Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton star as sparring divas in the interracial Sacred Divinity Choir of Pacashau, Ga., but the grande dames are largely upstaged by the movie’s younger generation. Joyful Noise has a little something for all comers with a narrative progression that ecumenically flits among characters while sidestepping any measured buildup to its foregone conclusion.
Writer/director Todd Graff is in familiar territory here, having fertilized the soil for future Gleeks with his previous two films, Camp and Bandslam, both youthful music-competition sagas. Joyful Noise ramps up his familiar storyline by extending the plot into an adult realm of music competition – gospel choirs – while maintaining all the teen angles and subplots. It makes for a very busy story that, nevertheless, moves at the pace of a Southern drawl. The Pacashau choir, a perpetual runner-up in the national competition, seeks to take home the trophy after the abrupt death of its longtime choirmaster Bernard Sparrow (Kristofferson, who clutches his heart and bows out in the opening scene, only to reappear later as a spectre to sing a duet with his widow, played by Dolly Parton). Pastor Dale (Vance) appoints Vi Rose Hill (Latifah) the new choirmaster, ruffling Bernard’s widow G.G. (Parton). Vi Rose’s daughter Olivia is the choir’s star soloist, but when she lets loose and really wails, her mother upbraids her showy “Mariah/Christina” vocal mannerisms. This sets up an ongoing tension between “traditional” choir music (which inscrutably includes tunes like Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror”) and a more contemporary repertoire. It’s a rivalry that’s exacerbated by the arrival of G.G.’s grandson Randy (Jordan). G.G. has an instant hankering for 16-year-old Olivia, who is a perfect vessel for all the conflicts. Then there are also the subplots regarding the economic downturn of Pacashau, Vi Rose’s absent husband (Martin) in the Army, her son with Asperger’s (Darden), anda choir member with a fondness for Asian men and a reputation for being lethal in bed, as well as special appearances by popular gospel stars Kirk Franklin and Karen Peck, and more.
Joyful Noise was produced by Alcon Entertainment, the company behind other films of contemporary uplift such as The Blind Side and Dolphin Tale. While it’s set in the world of gospel music (and there is plenty to be heard here), the film soft-pedals religiosity in favor of down-home country aphorisms and expressions. The interracial aspect is a nonfactor, as is any display of real emotional strife of any sort. The film feels about as genuine and spontaneous as its evident lip-synching.