Thursday, January 12, 2012

Joyful Noise

Shouting High, Talking Loud In The Name Of The Lord

Dolly Parton as G.G. Sparrow and Queen Latifah as Vi Rose Hill in Todd Graff's musical comedy-drama "Joyful Noise". 
Warner Brothers   


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
ay, January 12, 2012

Praise the Lord!  Actor, former back-up singer and sometime director Todd Graff directs "Joyful Noise", a musical comedy-drama about a gospel choir from Pacashau, Georgia and their bid to win the National Joyful Noise Competition to save the choir from disbanding, and lift the spirits of the economically depressed town in the process.

Tradition versus new spirit defines this comedy, which smiles like golden, hallowed sunshine on the big screen and screeches with the spikiness of a porcupine's armor.  After an untimely death, Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah) becomes Divinity Church Choir's leader and stubbornly represents the old guard of gospel tradition, which she believes must always flavor the choir's songs.  Fellow choir member G.G. Sparrow (Dolly Parton, who sings like one here) is a generation ahead of Vi but favors a replenishing sound of new music in the choir, one celebrating the present and more secular.  These oil-and-water ladies don't get along like a house on fire.  Both would probably burn the other's house down if they had the chance.

"Joyful Noise", an undeniably entertaining, sometimes funny film, takes its gospel vs. secular path like a battle between hip-hop rhymers, yet Mr. Graff's occasionally ambivalent film tips its hat from the very start as far as which of these musical tropes will prevail.  To further tip the scales Randy (Jeremy Jordan), G.G.'s embattled grandson, heightens the tension between Vi and G.G. with his instant love for Vi's daughter Olivia (Keke Palmer).  Young Randy -- fresh out of a big city (ala Footloose-man Kenny Wormald) aka super, all-knowing white guy extraordinaire -- conveniently has the answers for everyone in Pacashau, doling out advice and wisdom with all the patronizing of a sneering king waiting to ascend his musical throne.  Randy curses in church, uses a common, nasty epithet about women in the process, and beats up one consistently sullen and hostile boy pretty badly for no especially good reason.  And Randy is the film's cornerstone for change and its new spirit.

For all her semi-matronly bullheadedness Vi doles out tough love for Olivia, and while Vi is one of the film's consistently off-putting characters (a scene where Vi sings for the Lord to "fix me" is as false as Satan asking to protect God's flock), Queen Latifah plays the still-all-too present strong, angry and invincible black woman well, though in one scene with Ms. Palmer the strength is merited.  In the specific scene Vi is fierce, and it's the only place in the film where such power is needed.  "Joyful Noise" however, forgets this.  Meanwhile, G.G. plays fairy Southern godmother to Olivia, her honey-coated sugary smiles acting as comfort food for her surrogate daughter of sorts.  (I waited for glitter to emerge from G.G.'s eyelashes, sparks to fly from her blue eyes, and for her to wave her star-tipped fairy godmother wand, but alas, I waited in vain.) 

Many episodes in Mr. Graff's film neither advance its story or make sense other than to get a quick laugh.  A running side joke about a choir woman who men are afraid of is initially funny, but after it recurred I asked, "what is it doing here?"  The film year that is 2012 isn't two weeks old and Hollywood already has a film showcasing both oversexed and angry black women.  There's no in-between, even with the weathervaned Olivia.  As industrious as ever, Olivia just wants to fly and darn-rootin'-tootin' Vi believes in concrete and cement instead.  The film makes single-parenting a poisonous affair, although the pot is sweetened more on G.G.'s end with the rebellious Randy.  "Joyful Noise" is two hours long, and with some of the needless (and puzzling) scenes as well as excess clichéd characters, the editing hammer needed to be more discerning, as only 85 minutes of this film was necessary. 

For all its shortcomings -- and there are many -- "Joyful Noise" is a certified crowd pleaser.  The wonderful gospel music will be a joy for those so inclined, and is by far the best part of "Joyful Noise".  The toe-tapping, aisle-shaking, soul-stirring musical numbers in Mr. Graff's film will have audiences dancing in their seats and on their feet applauding.  When the cast's musical talents aren't on display however, "Joyful Noise" loses its discipline and purpose, drifting from one tiring, bickering episode to another, often involving the holier-than-thou Vi.  A subplot about Vi's personal life feels like Mr. Graff's screenwriting attempt to soften her, and while such a warming is definitely welcomed it arrives too late, tacked on and unconvincing. 

Both Vi and G.G. entertain moonlit fantasies of completeness and "Joyful Noise" invests in a fair amount of romanticism mainly designed as breathing spaces for its audience.  One of Ms. Parton's own songs specially for Mr. Graff's film, "From Here To The Moon And Back", plays as sublime fairy tale.  Both women want completeness -- strike that -- all the women of "Joyful Noise" want to be whole, and if that is defined by having a man in their lives, then the male figures in their lives are either dead, disappeared or non-existent.  The deck is stacked, and predictably, all the cards will face the right way when it counts.

Vi's son Walter (Dexter Darden) is the conscience of the film's gospel-secular tension, adding a somewhat superfluous soundtrack of his own.  An Asperger's sufferer, Walter dons dark sunglasses -- there's no accident that he looks like Little Stevie Wonder -- and pontificates on a number of things, including one-hit wonders in music history.  "Joyful Noise" is smart enough to recognize that the secular songs in the film (Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, Mr. Wonder and others) come out of the gospel tradition.  As a corollary the film stitches together a racial reconciliation of sorts between G.G. and Vi, Olivia and Randy, and at least one other interracial relationship used as a tongue-in-cheek gesture to leaven the family drama between the Sparrows and the Hills, the not-quite Hatfields and McCoys.

The cynicism of "Joyful Noise" and its indulgence in creating a mocking, hallowed adherence to a sacred Christian holiness and sanctity is amplified by many things, including the repetitive product placement of sponsors like Tyson Deli and House Of Blues, which give Michael Bay's own product-placement extravaganza a run for its money.  There's also the telling inclusion of the newer breed of gospel talent like super-charged electrifier Kirk Franklin, whose physicality and energy are irrepressible (and has a vocal cadence indistinguishable from the secular Black-Eyed Peas), and the equally telling absence of The Winans family and other traditional mainstays of American gospel, from "Joyful Noise".  Would The Winans, Shirley Caesar, and the rest of those seen in last year's gospel documentary "Rejoice And Shout" endorse this cheerful, holy noise?  The answer my friends, if not the proof, is in those Tyson foods.

("Joyful Noise" opens across the U.S. and Canada tomorrow, Friday, January 13.)

With: Courtney B. Vance, Angela Grovey, Paul Woolfolk, Jesse L. Martin, Kris Kristofferson.

"Joyful Noise" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for some language and a sexual reference.  The film's running time is two hours.

COPYRIGHT 2012.  POPCORNREEL.COM.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.                Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW