There are many, many moments in Todd Graff’s spirited rock-gospel musical A Joyful Noise when you’ll find yourself rolling your eyes, but you’ll have more fun if you try to roll them in time with the rollicking numbers. Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton play Vi Rose Hill and G.G. Sparrow, two bounteous, battling members of the Sacred Divinity Choir of Pacashau, Georgia, one African-American, poor, and pious, the other white, rich, and exuberantly (surgically) enhanced. Vi Rose takes over the choir after G.G.’s husband, Bernard (Kris Kristofferson), has a fatal heart attack in the first scene, the climax of the group’s semifinals-winning performance in the national “Joyful Noise” singing competition. To add to the awkwardness, G.G.’s rambunctious grandson, Randy (Jeremy Jordan), is over the moon for Vi Rose’s angel-faced-and-voiced daughter, Olivia (Keke Palmer). Vi Rose is the type to tell her children not to be too prideful, that God is singing through them, while G.G. and her grandson are more, shall we say, Dionysian. The straitlaced minister (Courtney B. Vance) sides with the conservative Vi Rose, but God appears to favor the funky.
A Joyful Noise is too transparently corny and manipulative to resent. It’s not as if Graff is trying to get one past you. But he’s not camping it up, either, like the makers of Glee. Graff has his own religion, only tangentially related to the Almighty. He worships showbiz and revels in everything that happens to people who are part of it. He suggests that differences in race and class won’t matter so much — they can even disappear for a spell — when you’re putting on a show with someone. He gives the choir members their own running gags and subplots. The exuberant, big-bottomed Earla (Angela Grovey) flirts excruciatingly with the scrawny Mr. Hsu (Francis Jue) before their memorable tryst. Caleb (Andy Carl), who works in a family-owned hardware store, finds his joyful noise dampened by the terrible economy. “Trust me,” says G.G., “you’ll feel the spirit again.” (He does.) Vi Rose’s son, Walter (Dexter Darden), has Asperger’s syndrome and doesn’t understand why his mother spends so much time praising God when “he’s the one who made me this way” — but G.G.’s grandson Randy teaches him to play piano and sing out. A slick, cocky guitarist (Paul Woolfolk) comes regularly sniffing around the beauteous Olivia, but this is the sort of film in which differences can be transcended via song.
You could spend a lot of time enumerating the inanities in Joyful Noise and putting down lame PG-rated insults like G.G.’s “I’d call you stubborn but that would be an insult to mules.” The diner-set Diva Brawl between Dolly and the Queen is painfully maladroit. (It’s cool that Parton can joke about her obvious plastic surgery — less cool that so many muscles in her face have been severed that she can barely open her mouth when she’s supposed to cut loose in song.) More significant, all the numbers we see are too “finished.” There are no moments in rehearsal when the characters try something, fail, then try again and discover their sound. Isn’t the bumpy process part of the fun of a backstage comedy?
A Joyful Noise overcomes. The big numbers are a gospel-pop-funk fusion that made me think, Hmmm, this seems very processed — before I noticed my feet were tapping of their own accord. How can you resist that wah-wah funk guitar? The kid with Asperberger’s finds himself by singing “Walk Away, Renee,” while Keke Palmer (much beloved by kids as the title character on TV’s True Jackson, and with a honey of a voice) makes McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” into a cool drink of water. The competition climaxes with a medley/mash-up of songs by Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Usher, and others that’s even more infectious than it is ridiculous. The actors sell it. Jeremy Jordan’s Randy is so instantly smitten with Olivia that he comes off as demented, which makes the performance a lot more fun than it would have been in the hands of a typical vanilla juvenile. He bounces around and revolves as he talks while good-girl Keke tries unsuccessfully to keep her eyes modestly trained on the ground. Vi Rose’s husband (Jesse L. Martin) has reenlisted in the army, in part to feed his kids, in part to escape his withering wife, and there are a couple of nicely nasty scenes in which Palmer and Latifah hash out why dad’s not around. (A bout in a motel builds to one of the best parental screeds I’ve ever heard and features the immortal line — after Olivia has complained of her exhausted mother’s glottal emissions — “You treat my snoring like it is a Marvin Gaye song!”) Vi Rose might have been a thankless role, but Latifah has a warm and natural presence and looks great in her two-toned shiny violet choir robes. So does Parton, who, even lacquered and lockjawed, reminds you how much purity there can be in artifice.