You’ve got your squeaky-clean reworkings of pop tunes from various decades, which are intended to please viewers of all ages; some romance, although nothing too hot and heavy; and a large dollop of prayer, as the characters struggle to find answers with the Lord’s help. It’s really rather canny the way writer-director Todd Graff’s film caters to these large, wholesome audiences — ones that are largely underserved in mainstream multiplex fare — all at once.
But that doesn’t mean it’s effective as entertainment. Especially during the musical numbers — which theoretically should serve as the most rousing source of emotion, since the film is about a gospel choir — there’s a weird disconnect, a sense that the songs are simultaneously overproduced and hollow, and repeated cutaways to reaction shots of singers nodding and smiling further undermine their cohesion. A powerful performance of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” toward the start is a rare exception.
If there’s one useful nugget to be gleaned here, though, it’s that virtually anything can be turned into a gospel song; apparently “Yeah” by Usher could be about Jesus if you wanted it to be.
A progressive push for contemporary music vs. the tug of traditional spiritual tunes is at the core of “Joyful Noise” and represents the primary source of tension. That’s how little is at stake here.
When the church choir in depressed, small-town Pacashau, Ga., loses its leader (Kris Kristofferson) to a heart attack, veteran singer Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah) is tapped to take over, rather than the late director’s widow, G.G. Sparrow (Dolly Parton). Vi Rose is a modest, conservative Christian nurse raising her two teenage kids on her own while her husband’s away serving in the Army. G.G. is all sass and big hair and folksy metaphors, usually involving animals: “There’s always free cheese in the mousetrap, but trust me, the mice there ain’t happy.” It’s who you might imagine Parton’s “Steel Magnolias” character had become a couple decades later, if you were to ponder such questions.
Anyway, Vi Rose and G.G. hurl passive-aggressive barbs at each other in a continuation of a long-standing hatred that’s never fully explained, and probably should have been. Guess they just plain don’t like each other. So when G.G.’s nebulously naughty grandson, Randy (Jeremy Jordan), moves back to town and promptly falls for Vi Rose’s blossoming, 16-year-old songbird daughter, Olivia (Keke Palmer), the women’s animosity boils over and threatens to destroy the entire choir as we know it — right as they’re gaining momentum in the annual National Joyful Noise Competition.
Graff, who previously directed the similarly musical “Camp” and “Bandslam,” jumps around awkwardly between catfights, performances and surreptitious snuggle sessions between the two young stars, both of whom can really sing (Jordan has appeared on Broadway in “Bonnie and Clyde”). Sometimes Graff veers wildly off course, as he does with a subplot in which a female church singer has sex with one of her fellow choir members, and when he dies soon afterward, she’s branded as a man-killer throughout the nationwide gospel-choir circuit. A fantasy duet in which G.G. and her late husband sing and dance in the front yard goes on for an eternity.
There’s also a subplot in which Randy tries to prove himself to Vi Rose by taking her teenage son with Asperger’s syndrome (Dexter Darden) under his wing; clearly the film means well by including this storyline but it feels wedged-in from a narrative perspective.
Except for a climactic confrontation in which Vi Rose finally snaps and unleashes her frustration on the rebellious, ungrateful Olivia, very few sounds in “Joyful Noise” ring true.
“Joyful Noise,” a Warner Bros. pictures release set for January 13th, is rated PG-13 for some language, including a sexual reference. Running time: 118 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.