REVIEW: Queen Latifah, Dolly Parton Can't Cut Through the Static of Joyful Noise
The idea of seeing Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton in a movie together, not to mention a movie about a gospel choir, is a particular kind of heaven. Latifah is a radiant performer capable of elevating even the most mundane material to a level of charm and grace unachievable by most mere mortals. And Parton, aside from having one of the sweetest and most haunting voices in all of country music, is a firecracker presence by herself -- if you could bottle force of will in a perfume bottle, you couldn’t name it anything but Dolly. But whatever Latifah and Parton might have achieved together in that mythical heavenly ideal, it’s just not coming together in this lifetime – or at least not in Joyful Noise, a well-intentioned, pleasant-enough picture that shoots off in too many directions to ever ignite.
Latifah plays Vi Rose Hill, a sturdy, no-nonsense family woman who inherits the leadership of her church choir after the death of its beloved director (played, in just a few tiny scenes, by Kris Kristofferson). But this is a very small town we’re talking about -- Pacashau, Georgia, pop. 233, or something like that -- and petty rivalries and resentments abound. It turns out that G.G. Sparrow (Parton), who has contributed heaps of money to the church and who’s also a leading (and undeniably shapely) figure in its Divinity Church Choir, thinks she should inherit the mantle. She has some new ideas for the group, which she wants to implement before the all-important National Joyful Noise Competition. Vi Rose, a traditionalist, likes to do things the old-fashioned way. The two women start trading insults and play-fighting even before it becomes apparent that G.G.’s rapscallion grandson, Randy (Jeremy Jordan), who has just drifted into town from New York City, is madly attracted to Vi Rose’s daughter, Olivia (Keke Palmer), the choir’s obvious rising young star.
Actually, there’s a new conflict every five minutes in Joyful Noise: It’s pretty much all writer-director Todd Graff (Bandslam) can do to tamp each one down, Whac-a-Mole style, before another one pops up. Vi Rose doesn’t much approve of Randy, until he takes her pop-music-loving, Asperger’s-afflicted son, Walter (Dexter Darden), under his wing. (Walter’s favorite song is the Left Banke’s Walk Away Renee, and if you’re going to have just one favorite, that’s not a bad one to have.) Randy, you see, is an ace pianist and arranger, and he also has some ideas for spiffing up the choir’s material and moves. Meanwhile, Olivia starts acting up, as young 'uns will. And don’t look now, but a rival for her affections (Paul Woolfolk) is just about to show up at the local quarry, where Randy and Walter have gone to practice their vocals (it makes a handy echo chamber). That could be big trouble. And yet, somehow, it’s really not.
There’s so much going on in Joyful Noise that there doesn’t seem to be much time for anyone to actually sing. Still, the gang manages to squeeze some in. Many of the numbers are pop songs reimagined as gospel material, some making the transition with ease (like Sly Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher”) and others (“Maybe I’m Amazed”) that, no matter how you slice them -- or tweak the lyrics -- still sound like secular love songs rather than hymns of praise. One of the loveliest numbers is Latifah’s spare rendition of “Fix Me, Jesus”: It’s plain and unvarnished, in a way that too much of Joyful Noise isn’t. Parton sings a duet with Kristofferson (he returns from the grave specifically for this purpose), called “From Here to the Moon and Back,” which is pretty enough in its serene, wistful way.
But even though there’s so much going on in Joyful Noise, there still isn’t much for its two stars to do other than trade one-liners masquerading as small-town insults. (Observing G.G.’s superblond tousle of hair, Vi Rose snickers, “What, you’re worried you’re not gonna be seen from space?”) Parton and Latifah are both high-spirited all right, and their sparring is reasonably fun to watch. But Parton’s face, as those of us who have loved her for years, is not what it used to be, and looking at it is a bit disconcerting. Latifah, on the other hand, looks as luminous as ever. As performers, the two clearly have a great deal of respect and admiration for each other, and that’s the motor that drives Joyful Noise.
But movies need more than just good mechanics, or even just good chemistry, to bloom. They always need at least a scrap of divine intervention. And on that count, Joyful Noise could still use a little fixing from Jesus.