Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton have built up much goodwill, and it carries them through the regrettable Joyful Noise. There are some appealing moments in writer and director Todd Graff's overlong backstage musical about a gospel choir, but the film collapses under too many dull characters and too many silly plot threads. Granted, movie musicals aren't known for their depth, but in good musicals you can sense a guiding intelligence. One is missing here.
It's an interesting pairing, Latifah and Parton. Both are ambitious entertainers who transitioned into movies from successful recording careers, and on the screen both beam marvelous warmth, seemingly without effort. That's especially true of Parton in her 1980 movie debut, 9 to 5, a not very distinguished comedy that's made enjoyable by her performance, among other things.
Parton's work in Joyful Noise recalls 9 to 5, mainly in the way her new character, G.G., overuses cornpone aphorisms. Along with Latifah's character, Vi, G.G. sings in a Georgia gospel choir; she is married to the director (Kris Kristofferson), who dies in the opening scene. The small-town church's pastor (Courtney B. Vance) picks Vi over G.G. to be the new director, setting up a power struggle that plays out as the ensemble competes in a series of singing contests.
Graff errs in making enemies of his stars' characters, because Latifah and Parton do likeable much better than they do bitter and vindictive. Graff also errs in telling so many jokes about G.G.'s plastic surgery. I'm generally not interested in gossiping about celebrities' medical choices, but I will say that Parton's appearance these days is kind of alarming, and the jokes don't help.
Meanwhile, a love triangle develops between Vi's daughter, G.G.'s grandson and a young guitarist. A couple of choir members have an awkward romance. Vi's daughter runs away to visit her father at an army base. Another choir member is out of work after the family business shuts down. Vi struggles to connect with her teenage son, who has Asperger's syndrome. The NBC dramedy Parenthood is currently setting the standard for nuance and compassion in portraying Asperger's; Joyful Noise doesn't meet it.
It's a lot. Too much. The film's redeeming quality is its energetic music - including, Dolly Parton fans will rejoice to learn, a few tunes by that gifted songwriter. True, a religious rewrite of Usher's "Yeah" is unfortunate ("My god and I are the best of homies"). But I'm taken by a gospel setting of "Maybe I'm Amazed," the song that is Paul McCartney's single greatest achievement. Sometimes romantic love songs also work well as love songs to Jesus. Just ask Al Green.
Eastgate, Point, Star