With Queen Latifah, Dolly Parton, Keke Palmer, Jeremy Jordan, Kris Kristofferson. Written and directed by Todd Graff. Rated PG-13 (for some language including a sexual reference). 118 minutes.
JOYFUL NOISE is the sort of disposable, forgettable film that gets dumped in January among the Oscar contenders from the previous year, and eventually gets shown on Sunday afternoons on TV. It involves a Georgia church choir where two women have different ideas of where it should go. One (Dolly Parton) is the widow of the late choir director. The other (Queen Latifah) is the new choir director. There’s much not very interesting conflict which leads to a big contest for church choirs. No fair guessing who’s going to win.
It’s not very good but if the above description sounds promising to you then you’re probably part of the intended audience and might find it mildly entertaining. For the rest of us, though, the film raises a number of troubling questions:
Kris Kristofferson appears as the choir director in the opening moments of the film and then dies. Except for a lame dream sequence, that’s it. How did they get him to appear in this movie? It’s probably a much more interesting story than what appears on screen.
Movies reflect cultural changes much more than lead them. As late as the 1960s interracial marriages were actually illegal in several states before the Supreme Court declared such laws unconstitutional. Now such relationships are so acceptable that they go unremarked, including the central romance of the film between Latifah’s character’s daughter (Keke Palmer) and Parton’s character’s grandson (Jeremy Jordan). Will this play well in the South?
There’s another interracial relationship that ends in a death that’s played for laughs. The woman involved is so mortified that she thinks she’s being punished for the sin of premarital sex. She’s assured she is not. Is this what conservative Christian moviegoers are expecting to see in a movie about a church choir?
The movie comes down to the cliché situation where the choir – the feisty underdogs – gets a shot at the championship, in this case a competition of Christian choirs. What would Jesus do? Is a contest in which the goal is to demonstrate the most entertaining and enthusiastic musical endorsement of Jesus really the best statement about Christianity? We see a youth choir perform a number that brings down the house. We are then expected to root against them because their victory would spell the defeat of “our” choir.
The conflict between Parton and Latifah regards which direction to take the choir. Latifah favors a more traditional approach. At the last moment she changes her mind and instantly, the choir is transformed, on stage and in the middle of a performance. Even if one assumes that they just happened to wear appropriate clothes under the robes they take off and that their earlier rehearsals of this Christian pop number was sufficient, the idea that it would be staged to perfection on the spur of the moment – including a spotlight on a soloist – makes one wonder if we’re in the realm of fantasy.
Finally, what the hell has happened to Dolly Parton? Her face and body has been so distorted by plastic surgery that it becomes a distraction. She looks as if she’s been transferred to Silly Putty and then twisted and turned, with puffy lips and a cartoonish face and body. There’s a message here – about vanity and the futility of pretending that aging isn’t part of being human – that the filmmaker may not have intended when he envisioned his cookie cutter comedy (that can’t quite connect).•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.