Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah jockey for song supremacy in "Joyful Noise."
The kids manage to upstage the old pros in "Joyful Noise," a sort-of "Sister Act 3" about an small-town church gospel choir that gets a musical makeover. Staggeringly cornball and squeaky-clean even when flirting with such issues as interracial sexual rivalries and, of all things, a post-coital death, writer-director Todd Graff's third feature follows very much in line with the “let's-put-on-a-show” format of his first two efforts, "Camp" and "Bandslam," and overlaps in sensibility with "Glee," fans of which could provide a portion of this film's audience. But with Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton leading the cast, the most eager and satisfied public for Warner Bros.' first release of 2012 will be found among Southern and Heartland women of a certain age.
The most startling thing that happens in all of "Joyful Noise" occurs when the character played by one of its co-stars, Kris Kristofferson, abruptly dies after the opening scene (he later returns for a fantasy duet with Parton). Suddenly deprived of its choral director, the Divinity Church Choir in depressed Pacashau, Georgia, is taken over by gospel traditionalist Vi Rose Hill (Latifah), which doesn't go down too well with the dead man's widow, rich gal G.G. Sparrow (Parton), who's more pop and country oriented.
From here on, the plot spins out like a 1930s Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney musical, only with a multi-hued cast. The fly in the ointment here is the arrival of G.G.'s grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordan), a good-looking bad boy who instantly takes a shine to Vi Rose's ready-to-blossom 16-year-old daughter Olivia (Keke Palmer), the choir's singing star who's ready to blossom as a young woman, but not if her hyper-vigilant mom has anything to say about it.
Currying favor with the skeptical Vi Rose, ever-clever Randy takes under wing her other child, Walter (Dexter Darden), who has Asperger's, hides behind shades, might be gay and, epitomizing the script's complete inability to be subtle when stating the obvious is an option, announces, “I just wish I could be normal.” Functionally, Randy is like a twin brother to the central character in "Footloose" in the way he shakes up a backwater community and injects life into its cultural/musical scene.
Along with the Walter character, Graff's script introduces a couple of other interesting against-the-grain elements, notably the resentment of black teen Manny (Paul Woolfolk) feels when white boy Randy beats him out for Olivia's affections and presenting the church's black pastor (Courtney B. Vance), as well as Vi Rose (whose absent husband is in the military), as being more conservative-minded than the local whites. Then there's the little subplot about an overweight gospel singer with a thing for Asian men who, upon breaking a four-year sexual fast, promptly sends her partner to his maker. At least he died happy.
Still, everyone on view is so fundamentally decent and goody-goody that no real tension or unresolvable conflicts ever surface. The over-arcing storyline delineates the choir's struggle to transform itself from a perennial also-ran to potential champion in the national competition, which it predictably does in a rousing climax in which the now funked-up Pacashau unit, belting out Sly Stone's "I Want to Take You Higher," vies with a youth group fronted by a phenomenal singer who, in a rendition of Billy Preston's "That's the Way God Planned It," comes across as an uncanny vocal blend of Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder.
With their eye-catching looks and abundant musical talents, Jordan (notable for his stage work in "Newsies," "Rock of Ages," "West Side Story" and "Bonnie and Clyde") and Palmer ("Akeelah and the Bee," "Ragz on TV," two albums) make the strongest impressions. As a woman who's alternately argumentative and defiant, Latifah has one big scene in which entertainingly tells off her unappreciative daughter, while Parton, who contributed two new songs to a lively soundtrack largely dominated by covers of well-known tunes, has facially begun to resemble a carefully crafted older facsimile of Angelina Jolie.
Dialogue and visual aspects are all right on the nose, bereft of shading or nuance.
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