Your friend and mine Roger Ebert has often said that the matter isn’t what a movie is about, but rather how it is about it. "Joyful Noise" is ostensibly about a small-town Georgia church choir competing against others in a nationwide gospel competition. It’s about a dying town in need of some community pride. It’s about the newly named leader of said choir battling with the widow of her recently deceased predecessor. It’s about that widow’s recently arrived and perpetually restless teenage grandson. It’s also about an all-but-single mother caring for both a son with Asperger’s and a daughter interested in all the wrong boys while their father, her husband, is enlisted in the military. It’s also somehow about a choir member who unfortunately earns a reputation on the gospel circuit for killing the men with which she lays. And it is about all of these things poorly.
Shot with the heavenly glow of a soap commercial, Todd Graff’s follow-up to 2009’s "Bandslam" marks a regression from that music-minded teen drama as he struggles to juggle subplot upon subplot and half a dozen tones in lieu of telling a convincing, compelling, singular story populated with remotely relatable characters. Only for five, maybe ten, minutes of the film's interminable 110-minute running time does it resemble Graff’s more appealing earlier efforts, let alone a movie fully focused on the showboating and petty rivalry inherent to the competition scenario (not to mention one that might then address how the glory of God on which these characters pride themselves so heavily is perhaps underserved by gaudy theatrics and updated hip-hop songs).
Alas, this is not that movie. This is the movie where original choir leader Bernard (Kris Kristofferson) has a heart attack off-stage while his singers compete at the regional level of the titular showcase, and this is the movie where his spitfire of a wife, G.G. (Dolly Parton), grows fussy over the prospect of Vi Rose (Queen Latifah) filling his shoes instead of her. This is the movie where Vi Rose can’t convince pastor Dale (Courtney B. Vance) to try a new song and dance if he hopes for a win this year, and this is the movie where G.G.’s grandson, Randy (Jeremy Jordan), comes barreling into town like a "Footloose" knock-off in order to lend the choir some much-needed fresh blood.
Naturally, Randy isn’t around long before Olivia (Keke Palmer) falls head over heels for him, much to Vi Rose’s chagrin; however, Randy happens to be great with her son, Walter (Dexter Darden), whose portrayal of Asperger’s is a broad, unfortunate thing indeed. The same could be said of the detours involving Earla (Angela Grovey) as she fatefully beds an Asian-American peer and eventually, puzzlingly finds love with another man matching that description. Did we mention the frequent facelift jokes made by Latifah at Parton’s expense? How about the duet between the character of G.G. and the spirit of her dead husband?
Nearly every line of dialogue is a country-fried metaphor or simile, and every other corner appears to have been cut from an overstuffed narrative. We rarely get to see our underdogs actually perform outside of the first and last reels – at one point, they’re one-upped by a Detroit choir given full screen time for their routine, as they look on in full robes, clearly having already competed outside of the film’s purview – and lapsed scenes are often covered with tidy "previously on…" transitions between the characters (“I didn’t realize you had to get a new job!” “I see you found my runaway note…”). The teens always head off to school without ever actually going to classes, and outside of a pat epilogue, the only time we see a full congregation in this church is for Bernard’s funeral at the very start. What’s left is a story in which Queen Latifah only seems to lead the choir whenever she has a spare moment between scolding loved ones and squabbling with Parton, whose beef with Vi Rose seems awfully disproportionate to her having taken that coveted position.
There’s little apparent interest in addressing the fine line between healthy amounts of pride and toxic levels of that particular cardinal sin, and there’s little discernable incentive – not even a token cash prize – for the choir to win and help their economically depressed town beyond bragging rights. A discussion in which Vi Rose insists that her son doesn’t need to change for anyone is immediately followed by a performance of “Fix Me, Jesus” (the entire lyrics for which you just read), and a dressing-down given by her to Olivia veers from sass to sentiment in no time flat. Combine this with a climatic medley that improbably aligns current hip-hop hits with God-praising testimonials and pays off much unseen rehearsal, and you have the film’s “all things to all people, all at once” mentality in a nutshell.
"Joyful Noise" will surely find its easily-pleased audience among other full-screen DVDs in a Walmart bargain bin someday. We simply wish that it didn’t confuse righteousness with self-righteousness and reinforce the recurring notion that a film boasting wholesome values must sacrifice wit, sincerity and baseline competence in the process. [D]