Imagine a mediocre episode of Glee as envisioned by Billy Graham, and you're halfway to Joyful Noise.
Indie director Todd Graff, best known for directing Camp (2003) and being a regular on the 1970's Electric Company, has penned a screenplay for Noise that is so laden with clichés favored by unimaginative creators of bad romantic musicals that by comparison, Step Up 3D and Footloose, the remake, come off as peers of An American in Paris.
"I'd call you stubborn but that'd be an insult to mules" is an example of Graff's high wit. Throw in a spilled bed pan and a few gospel shrieks of "Fix me, Jesus!" and you know you're in moviegoers' hell.
As for Graff's helming, try to recall a dawdling episode of The Andy Griffith Show and slow that down.
All this lack of "action" takes place in the economically hard-hit town of Pacashau, Georgia. It's Sunday, and about three minutes into the film, Bernard Sparrow (Kris Kristofferson), the local choir's director, has a fatal heart attack while leading his group in a spirited tune. Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah), his second-in-command, takes over, giving Bernie's spirited wife G.G. (Dolly Parton) time to bury Bernie, put on her widow's weeds, and have a meeting with Pastor Dale (Coutney B. Vance). The chat is about who will replace her late husband as choir director. His and his board's choice: Vi. G.G.'s choice: G.G.
Oh, no! G.G. exclaims. After all, she and her well-off family have been the church's main support, since they're the only rich folk in town. Everyone else is either unemployed or soon to be.
Let your conscience rule your wallet, Pastor Dale intones.
Naturally, over the next 90 minutes, Vi and G.G. fight each other over the direction in which the choir should go, especially since it keeps losing at the National Joyful Noise Competition. Vi is more traditional in her tastes, while G.G. wants the song choices to get a little more hip.
Poor Vi! Putting the choir brouhaha aside, she's still set for a little breakdown because of her private life. She has two jobs: nurse and waitress. Plus two children: a growingly rebellious 16-year-old Olivia (Keke Palmer), and Walter (Dexter Darden), a boy with Asperger's Syndrome. Her husband, meanwhile, has left her to be in the military. If that weren't enough anxiety on one's platter, enter G.G.'s juvenile delinquent grandson, the hunky Randy (Jeremy Jordan), who has the hots for Olivia.
So will the choir finally win the contest? Will Randy be allowed to woo Olivia? Will Vi get her spouse back? Will Vi and G.G. become the best of friends? And will G.G. have a fantasy where she dances with her deceased husband?
My lips are sealed, even if basically you almost won't care. I say "almost" because this is such an affable cast, you keep rooting that they won't allow their talents to drown in all this hogwash. And what do you know? When the singing commences, especially the concluding two numbers plus an earlier take on Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed," you can't help but tap your feet and snap your fingers. Jordan, even though he's much too old for the part, and Palmer are terrific songsters. Plus Parton, with her overly plasticized face that she herself mocks in the film, and Latifah are impossible to despise even when they have to throw rolls at each other. These two divas might not be able to walk on water, but they certainly can walk on crap. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "Gay Identity in Literature" and "The Arts in New York City" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, The New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton).