Hallelujah! I think it's probably a required writerly cliche to begin a review of a gospel music movie you liked with a hallelujah. Indeed there is much to like in Joyful Noise, a silly, gleefully (but not Glee-fully) uplifting small-town musical boasting the formidable worlds-collide duo of Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton.
Director/writer Todd Graff's 2003 musical Camp, inspired by his time at Stagedoor Manor theater camp in the Catskills, was a frustrating misfire. It was a golden opportunity to mine the depths of cheery anguish that define the theater kid life, and yet the film came off too cartoony and exaggerated, a pretty hard feat considering how cartoony and exaggerated most kids at theater camp already are. There was something dismayingly inauthentic about the movie, and while there were some grand moments — a young Anna Kendrick bellowing out "Ladies Who Lunch," an almost giddily bleak Stephen Sondheim cameo — the bulk of the picture felt flat and off. Luckily in 2006 the terrific little documentary Stagedoor came along and told the theater camp story we'd been waiting for, but still the unpleasant taste of Camp, such squandered possibility!, lingered.
But it's happy news that, some nine years later, Graff has redeemed himself with Joyful Noise, in that he delivers on exactly what's been promised. Are there big, chest-rattling gospel numbers done with the perfect blend of cheese and seriousness? Yes! Does Dolly Parton, hardly human anymore but still wonderful, teeter around in ridiculous clothes, saying folksy things? Indeed she does! And does Queen Latifah turn in yet another poised, oddly saturnine, and undeniably, if somewhat inexplicably, likable movie performance? Absolutely. Graff signed a little contract when he presented this movie, promising that he would make something worthy of his stars and his subject, a great gay/camp/country convergence if ever there was one, and he did not violate it.
The plot of the movie doesn't much matter. Basically: the choir director (Kris Kristofferson, in what will likely be determined the most surprising cameo of 2012) of a church in a tiny, recession-devastated town in Georgia dies of a heart attack and so Queen Latifah's pious, conservative Vi Rose Hill is appointed the new director, much to the displeasure of the old guy's wife, G.G. Sparrow (Dolly Parton, duh). So they are at odds with one another, Vi Rose disliking G.G. for flashing her wealth and sass around, G.G. disliking Vi Rose for her uptight primness. Comedy fights ensue -- they will just never see eye-to-eye! Oh but meanwhile, yes of course there is a meanwhile, Vi Rose's teenage daughter Olivia (Disney Channel star Keke Palmer), a good chaste girl, has caught the eye of G.G.'s grandson Randy (future Broadway Newsies star Jeremy Jordan), a city kid who's fled to his ancestral homeland after some vague screw up in New York. So we've got a little R&J going on here, with enough quirky Shakespearean comedy side characters to fill a rain barrel to boot, and that's our movie. Oh, and there's a big choir competition in Los Angeles they're trying to get to. Will they make it? What the heck do you think.
Amidst all of this are the songs. Oh the songs! The soundtrack is a mixture of pop standards ("Maybe I'm Amazed," "Man in the Mirror") reworked with gospel arrangements and original tunes written by Mervyn Warren and Ms. Parton. There is nothing cutting edge or revolutionary about this music, but as bright, blaring beacons of bliss they certainly get the job done. Palmer, while not quite a brilliant actress, has a nice, earnest voice — it can be a bit reedy and pop-y at times, but there's church in there too. Jordan has the smooth tenor of many a young Broadway/pop crossover, and while he's not quite soulful enough to pull off every belt here, he ultimately acquits himself nicely in a movie where he's the obvious odd man out. Latifah has power and grace as always, and Parton initially makes you worry that age has made her singing a little too fluttery, but then she responds to your doubt with an outsized wail and your fears are blown free. The backup chorus sounds excellent, as do the other choirs we see at various points in the film. The arrangements are all thorough and deceptively intricate, and, as was part of that contract, the big climax number at the competition (OK, yes, they get there) bursts with, well, joy. Heads were bopping in the audience and even I, as rhythm averse as they come, felt my foot begin to move in time.
The movie is also sly in surprising ways; it's just self-aware enough to give all the glitter and goop some room to breathe. The fact that Dolly Parton is Dolly Parton becomes a small joke in the movie — that she wears an insane fitted choir robe isn't just ignored as a funny "Oh, Dolly" detail, it's brought up in a fight. The film's many corn-pone aphorisms and adages come fast and frequent, and while some of the early ones hit with a ping ("When foxes pack the jury box, the chicken's always guilty") eventually they get tiresome and unclever; you can practically see Graff grasping for straws as Queen Latifah struggles to sell a line about her rebelling daughter being a falling rock zone and other people getting hit withs rocks and oh who knows. They don't all work, no, but the ones that do give you blessed permission to guffaw at their winsome corniness.
There's an Asperger's subplot in the movie that feels a bit out of place, or rather it feels like just that little bit too much. There are already wisely understated themes of the recession and fathers off at war, so a third Story Of Today makes the movie feel a bit too issue-y. Would it also surprise you to hear that there are not one but two
Mostly, though, Joyful Noise is a goofy delight. It is definitely not going to be to everyone's liking — it really depends on your tolerance for Big Speeches and homey references to God — but if it looks like something you'd enjoy, if a Dolly Parton/Queen Latifah gospel musical makes something in your head or heart click on and begin to whir, as it does in me, then rest assured that it satisfies in nearly every way such a product can and should. Not evangelical or moralizing, Joyful Noise is never too holy. But it sure is spirited.