Joyful Noise: Is it Awfully Nice or Just Plain Awful?

Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton star in an aggressively uplifting musical that will leave you either snarling or singing—maybe both

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Van Redin / Warner Bros.

Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah

Inside every movie reviewer lurks two creatures: the critic and the fan. The critic analyzes and cauterizes, coolly judging a film’s manipulation of its audience. The fan sits there and sobs. I felt that peculiar schizophrenia watching Joyful Noise, the musical drama about the battles and affections in a Georgia choir aiming for a national championship. The critic in me can authoritatively declare that the film is crap. The fan in me sent his shirt to the dry cleaners for tear removal.

The Critic Speaks

In the Recession-battered town of Pacashau, Ga., choirmaster Bernard Sparrow (Kris Kristofferson) is leading the Sacred Divinity Choir through a rousing number, with his wife G.G. (Dolly Parton) taking the lead. A mostly black ensemble with a white coach and star singer, the choir resembles an NFL team’s offensive lineup. The racial vectors change before the end of the opening credits — indeed, in the middle of that first song — when Bernard suffers a heart attack and dies. The church’s stuffy pastor (Courtney B. Vance) hands the choirmaster job to Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah), over the objections of the bereft G.G., Pacashau’s one rich lady and the church’s main benefactor. You’re meant to wonder whether this spirited but fractious group will ever make it to the national pop-gospel finals in Los Angeles.

You will not wonder for a second. The plot, yoking Sister Act to Glee, renounces subtlety and surprise as if they were tools of Satan. Each of the two-person relationships in director Todd Graff’s script is instantly predictable. Vi Rose and G.G. will fight, then make up. Vi Rose’s teen daughter Olivia (Keke Palmer) and G.G.’s young grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordan) — a rebel from the North, and from Footloose — will abrade and fall in love. Randy will prove a mentor to Vi Rose’s Asperger’s-afflicted son Walter (Dexter); Manny (Paul Woolfolk), a black teen who resents Randy’s success with Olivia, will join the choir band; and other choir members will pair off as if they’d drawn names from a hat at a country social.

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The only wrinkle, aside from the interracial dating, is Graff’s tendency to kill off his supporting male characters. The Asian Mr. Hsu (Francis Jue) dies smiling after consummating his affections for the earthy African-American Earla (Angela Grovey). Kristofferson, whose pre-mortem screen time consisted of clutching his chest and keeling over, gets a reprieve for a misty post-mortem duet with Parton, as if death were just an hour in the dressing room before returning onstage for the big encore.

Graff has meandered down this musical-dramedy road before, with Camp and Bandslam, but this time, given the Southern setting, he spices his script clichés with crackerbarrel wisdom. Graff gives his characters lines that sound like rejects from the maxims of Dan Rather (“There’s always free cheese in the mousetrap, but, trust me, the mice don’t like it”), Tyler Perry (“You’re so country, you’ve been married three times and you’ve still got the same in-laws”) and King of the Hill‘s part-time aphorist Peggy Hill  (“When folks get wrapped up in themselves, they make very small packages”). The performers sell these half-witticisms for twice what they’re worth — because, as Mark Twain said, “All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure.”

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The two leads prove a Hollywood truism that extends from Bing Crosby to David Bowie and beyond: singers are natural actors. Latifah, who I’ve often thought has the most beautiful face in movies, and who is this film’s executive producer, convincingly shoulders the dramatic burden of playing a two-job wife and, effectively, a single mom. (Her soldier husband is at an Army base a few hours away.) That leaves the sassy-frenemy role to Parton. Long past her Nine to Five prime, the country star has spent too much time under the cosmetic surgeon’s scalpel, but at least at 66 she’s willing to take a joke about her appearance. When G.G. says, “I am what I am,” Vi Rose spits back, “Maybe you were five procedures ago.” Perhaps Parton thinks that being in a mediocre movie with evangelical elements will give her career a faithlift. With her zesty attitude and cogent line-readings, she’s still a pleasing sight for moviegoers, as long as they squint when looking at her.

Like Footloose, (500) Days of Summer, We Bought a Zoo and a hundred other new films with young characters, Joyful Noise has a soundtrack strangely mired in the ’60s. Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed,” Billy Preston’s “That’s the Way God Planned It,” the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee” and Sly & the Family Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher” all emanate from the Vietnam years, as if the choir got most of its material from a golden-really-oldies station. Joyful Noise reflects the soaring songs of that time but not the gritty movies. If this really were a ’60s drama, G.G. and Vi Rose would exchange some tart racial epithets, the young lovers would wrestle with pregnancy and poverty, and the dead would stay that way. Not that catastrophe is more realistic than a happy ending, but the serenely integrated group in this by-the-numbers movie has to be nearly as much a fantasy now as then. The intended feel-good mood sounds like a command: Feel good, dammit!

The Fan Smiles

What the critic says is gospel-true, and yet…. What’s wrong with a fantasy of communal affection? The film radiates an aura of innocence that is no less appealing for being manufactured. Keke Palmer, the lead singer, has a voice of silky power, and she doesn’t overdo what Queen Latifah’s character calls the “Mariah-Christina” vocal virtuosity. The two new songs by Parton proves her composer chops haven’t been surgically altered; I hummed those tunes long after the movie ended. Of course Kristofferson has to come back in ghost form: I wouldn’t forgive these two veteran country stars if they didn’t share a romantic duet. And the ’60s: that’s my decade, dude. I loved “Walk Away, Renee” — still do, and was grateful to hear it sung.

I’ll sue any publicist that uses this as a money quote, but the fan in me felt a giddy, guilty pleasure watching Joyful Noise. Please, don’t let this get around! I have a day job to protect.