It’s fruitless denying that there is an audience for a film like Joyful Noise, and with its pairing of Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah in a gospel-themed grudge match, it even might seem to have a little potential. However, with songs wrapped around an insultingly diminutive story – one which somehow manages to run close to two hours – it proves torturous to all but the most ardent fans of the artists involved.
Kris Kristofferson had the right idea; he enters and exits the film within a 3-minute period, playing the late husband of church benefactor G.G. Sparrow (Parton). Upon his death, he leaves the position of choir director vacant, and so it is awarded to long-time second-in-command Vi Rose Hill (Latifa), much to G.G.’s chagrin. However, when the National Gospel Competition looms, the two must try and pool their efforts for the collective good, for a loss would mean their choir succumbing to budget cuts.
An early sight of Dolly Parton wielding a shotgun knowingly milks her silly Southern charm, and the daft, homely truisms can be faintly amusing to a point, though like everything else in Joyful Noise, only for so long. When stodgy, shoehorned drama inevitably rears its head, everything goes wrong, and we know exactly where it’s going. G.G.’s grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordan) and Vi Rose’s daughter Olivia (Keke Palmer) end up falling for each other, and of course, it will bring their warring elders closer to together, all realising the curative power of music, indeed, to insulting ends.
The most abhorrent notion is not that a few gospel ditties can straighten out the troublesome drifter Randy, but that it can help Vi Rose’s son Walter (Dexter Darden) overcome a debilitating bout of Asperger syndrome. Most of its dramatic hodge-podge is old hat, but that is a very fresh slap in the face. At least it doesn’t inspire complete inertia – if only by shock factor – like most everything else; the war between outdated, puritanical church values and a new life awaiting is effortlessly ham-fisted, if harmless enough. The only even half-way convincing dramatic morsel involves the bond Walter forms with Randy; it’s a relaxed, somewhat unconventional friendship – at least compared to everything else – and a rare element that doesn’t seem forced.
Meanwhile, some moments – particularly the premarital relations between members of the choir – feel somewhat at odds with its wholesome, staunchly Christian message, even opting for some unexpectedly morbid humour in this stead. Still, it is one of the few moments with any teeth; you could take the film’s corn quotient to harvest, which does admittedly earn the odd sympathy chuckle out if sheer “can they top this?” tawdriness.
Given how the whole thing is pitched, it’s a surprise that the conflict between G.G. and Vi Rose isn’t milked more shrewdly; while things do heat up late in the day, their rivalry is positively dead-in-the-water for the film’s first half. This points to a central issue; director Todd Graff (Bandslam) juggles the myriad stories with little consideration, and it’s especially noticeable during the laughably malnourished love story.
Graff indulges in false dilemmas and contrived setbacks which, of course, are all solved before act three rolls around, as the stage sets for that inevitable one last gig. A late-day confrontation between Vi Rose and Olivia is fiery and demonstrates Latifa’s real acting chops, but unfortunately it’s a brief spark of life in something that for most of its runtime runs on empty.
Ignoring all this, at least there’s some good music, with a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” being the sure highlight. The tunes deliver some spry value, but in a film running dangerously close to 2 hours, it is just not enough. One would have to be the most forgiving devotee to overlook the glaring dramatic and comic misgivings.
Overlong and mind-numbingly generic, Joyful Noise promises home-cooked charm but leaves a taste worse than day-old grits.
Joyful Noise is in cinemas Friday.
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