THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Joyful Noise takes place in a small Georgia town, where an equally small church loses its choir director to a heart attack. Queen Latifah plays Vi Rose Hill, who is appointed to fill the vacant role by the pastor (Courtney B. Vance), much to the chagrin of sassy grandma G.G. Sparrow (Dolly Parton), who offered herself for the position. (Making the situation more tense is the fact that her husband is the one who died.) Every year, the choir participates in a national competition, which they always lose. Vi Rose wants to stick to the traditional way of doing things for the next competition. G.G. advocates trying new ideas and song arrangements. New ideas literally come in the form of her grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordan), a talented musician and born rule-breaker who immediately sets his sights on Vi Rose's daughter, Olivia (Keke Palmer). I think you can guess how things progress from here. Vi Rose and C.C. engage in constant battles of wit. Randy and Olivia start a forbidden romance. The choir members work on livening up their stage show in hopes of finally winning and bringing some pride to their hometown.
Joyful Noise earns curiosity points for teaming Queen Latifah with Dolly Parton. That's an intriguing combination, but the film doesn't really know what to do with it. The screenplay (by director Todd Graff) is filled with Southern witticisms that essentially take the place of actual dialogue. (“Trying to fool me is like sunrise trying to sneak past a rooster!” and “You're happier than a puppy that's wagging two tails!” are typical examples.) It doesn't help matters that both Latifah and Parton basically play their own public personas, as though simply putting them in the same frame would automatically create magic. It doesn't. Giving them clearly defined characters to play would have generated more of a spark.
A movie about a gospel music competition should be fun and inspiring; Joyful Noise is lumbering and dull. Running nearly two hours, the film plods along at a snail's pace. It has too many side characters who suck up screen time, including a female choir member whose played-for-laughs subplot involving a tragic romantic tryst is actually kind of cruel. Everything involving the battle for supremacy within the choir is predictable, as is the Randy/Olivia romance. Interestingly, there is a very clever twist in the last half hour, when the choir finds itself going up against an unlikely competitor. This leads to Latifah's best moment, in which she gives a rousing speech to help her singers stay motivated. I wish the film had more moments like this. It's the one time the story really gives us something unexpected.
In fairness, there is a (no pun intended) saving grace to Joyful Noise. No surprise, it's the music, which is across-the-board terrific. Parton gets a sweet duet with Kris Kristofferson, who plays her late husband, and famed gospel singer Kirk Franklin has a show-stopper of a number, too. The big finale offers two really amazing numbers back-to-back. Graff wisely lets the songs play out in their entirety; he doesn't cut away from them. Anytime someone opens their mouth to sing, the film springs momentarily to life.
Whenever the singing stops, the dull formula returns. Joyful Noise just doesn't have enough juice in its non-musical scenes. It has the right cast and the right songs. What it's missing is a story worthy of them.
( 1/2 out of four)
Joyful Noise will be released on DVD and in a Blu-Ray/DVD/UltraViolet combo pack on May 1.
Wisely, the bonus features largely cover the best thing about Joyful Noise: the gospel music. “Spotlight on a Song: Dolly Parton's 'From Here to the Moon'” looks at the recording of the Parton/Kristofferson duet. The singer, who also wrote the song, describes its inspiration, as well as its relevance to the plot. “Inspiration of Joyful Noise” features Todd Graff talking about his reasons for making the film. We learn that both of his parents were choir directors, and he grew up loving gospel music. Those segments run about five minutes each, while two others are a mere two minutes in length: “Make Some Noise” features the actors essentially recapping the plot, while “Leading Ladies” is a love-fest in which the main stars profess their mutual pleasure in working together. There is also one deleted scene, less than two minutes in length, between Parton and Jordan.
Additionally, an entire selection of extended songs is included, so you can get even more of the terrific tunes that populate the movie. Also in here is “'He's Everything' Live,” which finds Latifah and Parton promoting Joyful Noise by singing together at an actual gospel competition. Needless to say, they sound magnificent.
The picture and sound quality on the Blu-Ray are quite good. You'll want to crank your sound system during the live performances.
Joyful Noise is rated PG-13 for some language including a sexual reference. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.
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