Like a song that’s missing the second verse and half of the chorus, “Joyful Noise” lurches along in a confused fashion, leaving audience members cocking their heads and trying to make sense of the messy results.
If anyone gets the benefit of the doubt in this disaster, it’s writer-director Todd Graff, whose previous films “Camp” and “Bandslam” show him to be an excellent crafter of musical numbers and realistic teen romance. His new film, unfortunately, bears the mark of a movie that’s been taken out of its creator’s hands.
Case in point: This is a movie about a gospel choir from small-town Georgia, but when they travel to compete against a group from a slick Detroit megachurch, we never get to see our heroes actually perform in the competition. The choir’s original director, Bernard Sparrow (played by Kris Kristofferson), drops dead before the credits are over, but his ostensibly grieving widow G.G. (Dolly Parton) barely even registers that she’s upset about it.
(Admittedly, expressing emotion is not Parton’s forte at the moment, given the state of her head — she’s even given a line about how “God don’t want plastic surgeons to starve” or something, one of a dozen ludicrous country-fried aphorisms that not even the usually supernaturally charming Parton can completely put over.)
The story, such as it is, deals with the rivalry between G.G. and the woman who’s replacing Bernard as choir director, Vi Rose (Queen Latifah). Their mutual dislike grows more intense when G.G.’s ne’er-do-well grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordan) not only falls for Vi Rose’s daughter Olivia (Keke Palmer) but also tries to shake up the choir with contemporary songs and flashy choreography.
On paper, the idea of a movie that appeals to fans of both “Glee” and Tyler Perry seems like a shrewd one, but “Joyful Noise” will unlikely satisfy either camp. For a movie that’s ostensibly about gospel music, there’s precious little of it here, although Latifah does get to belt out “Fix Me, Jesus” at the piano. Most of the tunes are pop hits like “Man in the Mirror” and “Maybe I’m Amazed” sung by people in robes. (A better movie could perhaps pull off a version of Usher’s “Yeah” with the lyric “God and I are the best of homies,” but here it just feels desperate.)
Evangelicals may decide that they’d rather not see a movie featuring pre-marital sex (a male choir member dies after a night of lovin’ from one of the singing ladies, leading to an exceedingly unfunny running gag) and profanity, while Gleeks who were looking for an entertaining diva throw-down between Parton and Latifah will have to settle for a dispirited food fight in which Parton throws biscuits at Latifah before getting put in a headlock. Linda Evans and Joan Collins in a lily pond, this ain’t.
Palmer and Jordan have great voices, but they generate very little chemistry; points to the movie for promoting an interracial romance and treating it like no big deal, but these two bring no spark to it.
Ultimately, what “Joyful Noise” can’t overcome is the messy storytelling — G.G. mentions on several occasional that winning the big gospel contest will mean so much to “the town,” but the movie barely bothers to cover who lives there, how the locals feel about the church, or what’s happening with their lives. Olivia gets into a big argument with Vi Rose and accuses her mother of not appreciating her own beauty, an accusation that comes completely out of left field, and so on.