Joyful Noise certainly has its demographics covered. For the traditionalistic Bible Belt crowd, there’s a bounty of God-fearing folk, and at least three women who are rendered defective when the men who complete them leave the picture. For the urban enthusiast, there’s ample soulful swagger and belting of R&B, with tracks by Michael Jackson and Chris Brown given the shake-the-rafters treatment. For the Gleeks, there’s an exultant third-act medley that puts every single mash-up in Ryan Murphy’s repertoire to shame. For the gays, there’s nearly enough over-primped fabulosity to rival Burlesque, whose divas-play-themselves lead the movie surely follows. And for the cynical liberals, there’s a tacky reflection of the church’s overall hypocrisy that seems marginally self-aware (among other things, the inevitable tournament victory of the film’s devout, cookie-cutter choir can’t be had until the crooners ditch the God stuff and whip out the secular guns).
Written and directed by actor turned tween-musical helmer Todd Graff, who went from helping Ed Harris breathe liquid in The Abyss to presenting tuneful sexual fluidity with the aptly titledCamp, Joyful Noise is capable of pleasing a whole lot of people without being at all technically good, the kind of thing you keep grinning at and grooving with, but wouldn’t eagerly admit to liking. The kicker is that despite the standard-issue sap of its garden-variety plot, the film isn’t out to change your life or desperately steal your tears. From Dolly Parton’s just-won’t-quit bazooms to the choir’s blindingly reflective satin robes, Joyful Noise is all about cheap surfaces, and knows it.
It owns up to as much the moment it starts, opting for an embossed gold title font that’s graced many a Cash Money Millionaires video. From there the camera jerks its way into the choir’s introductory performance, as led by choir director Kris Kristofferson, who’s in very rare form rocking the group’s signature purple until his character suffers a fatal heart attack. G.G. Sparrow (Parton) is the age-defying steel magnolia Kristofferson’s director leaves behind, and the combative frenemy of fellow songstress Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah), who takes the choir’s reins and predictably stifles it success with her old-school ways. Perfectly cast, Parton and Latifah hugely deliver in their caricaturish roles, with one spouting down-home maxims while clearly dictating her colorfully corseted wardrobe, and the other heartily encouraged to boomingly typify the strong black woman. Both sound beautiful when they sing (Parton, specifically, has lost none of the soft, angelic coo that matches her roof-raising high notes), but more importantly, both are fully exploited for their outsized, priceless personalities. At 65, Parton looks more than a little awkward bobbing and shaking with all the young and nimble choristers, and she often seems to be actively preventing her marshmallow lips from floating away, but that’s absolutely part of the gleeful charm of her mammoth presence. And Latifah, never one to disappoint in the shut-up-and-listen department, is gifted a floor-rattling, working-mama monologue that doesn’t even fit its scene, but is nevertheless delectable.
Part Sister Act and part Footloose, Joyful Noise pairs its dueling-chanteuse storyline with one of rebel-boy-meets-church-girl, as G.G.‘s grandson, Randy (Jeremy Jordan), woos Vi Rose’s songbird daughter, Olivia (Keke Palmer), when he rolls into the movie’s Georgia town. Again, the film doesn’t milk this precious union so it can swim in last-act, puppy-love first kisses; it knows you’re onto it, and dives right in with the line, “How ‘bout we make some babies that look just like you?” The same goes for Randy’s nice-guy bond with Vi Rose’s Asperger’s -afflicted son (Dexter Darden), which is pretty much as hokey as it sounds, but never flagrantly manipulative. The almost humble directness offsets the near-consummate lack of nuance, and such is what the enjoyment of Joyful Noise comes down to: how much give-and-take you can take. Can you suffer horrid compositions and claustrophobic close-ups if also given knockout musical numbers? Can you tolerate a bloated running time of 118 minutes if it means seeing Parton pelt Latifah with dinner rolls? More importantly, does the notion of Parton doing the robot to Usher’s “Yeah!” before breaking into a gospel rendition of Chris Brown’s “Forever” fill you with giddy, guilty jolts of excitement? If not, by all means, keep your distance. The rest of us will gladly take your place in line.