Todd Graff’s Joyful Noise tells the story of a Pacashau, Ga., church choir entering a gospel music competition against better-financed groups. It’s an underdog fable that neatly parallels Graff’s own career since directing his 2003 debut film Camp, the underappreciated—yet secretly influential—pop music celebration set at a training school for young musical theater aspirants.
This time, Graff gets to reclaim the talented-amateur premise that predated Disney’s High School Musical and was eventually stolen and coarsened by the ghastly network TV series Glee. Glee represents the power of bullying promotion (and obnoxiously exploitative political correctness) over the ingenuous exuberance that is Graff’s inimitable gift. Joyful Noise’s superficial battle-of-the-choirs premise resembles Graff’s Bandslam and harkens back to Busby Berkeley’s 1939 Mickey-and-Judy musical Babes in Arms more than it offers authentic religious testimony. It occupies that second-rate, quasi-gospel, Sister Act middle-ground. Yet there’s something genuinely devout about Graff’s filmmaking. He responds to showmanship, even in evangelical performance.
Although Joyful Noise merely glosses gospel choir subculture, Graff is able to nearly transform the genre’s Big Dish stereotypes—which ought to be the subject of an ideal Tyler Perry movie—by using brash Queen Latifah and the legendary Dolly Parton as guileless Christian amateurs. Playing bossy single parent Vi Rose Hill and benevolent widowed grandmother G.G. Sparrow, Latifah and Dolly look at each other with the candor and confidence of women who know their way around show business. Black Vi Rose and white G.G. are rivals in an idyllically interracial church choir but, actually, they share faith in pop music culture as the bulwark of social harmony and individual security. This ideology comes close to religious fervor, complementing Graff’s affection for performance and his singular musical zeal.
Joyful Noise mixes gospel sentiment with a familiar, not-obvious, pop catalog choices, from Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud,” Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” and Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed,” leading to a delirious onstage medley that combines T-Pain, Usher and Chris Brown with Stevie Wonder and Sly Stone. Graff’s feeling for songwriting, performance and the emotion behind it can’t be faked, as Glee attempts. When Dexter Darden, as Vi Rose’s Asperger’s suffering son Walter, isolates himself inside the song “Walk Away Renee” the song and feeling evidence deep pop instinct.
Graff’s rapport with youth also shows in Keke Palmer, matured since starring in Akeelah and the Bee, as Vi Rose’s talented daughter Olivia and Broadway ingénue Jeremy Jordan, whose smirking virility recalls Stephen Boyd with David Archuleta’s sweetness, as her bad-boy beau. They bring the requisite energy while Latifah and Parton provide smiling gravitas. An outburst of mother-daughter exasperation achieves Latifah’s first heartfelt acting. Latifah’s not a singer but her “Fix Me Jesus” is a well-staged prayer-solo, as is Dolly’s reverie “From Here to the Moon and Back.” Yet, it is Dolly’s climactic “He’s Everything” that goes beyond what’s required and attains an ecstatic pop-gospel crossover.
Follow Armond White on Twitter @3xChair.