At its most infectious, gospel music has the power to lift people out of their seats and get them dancing. Despite a hefty gospel infusion, “Joyful Noise” adopts the subject but not the spirit of the praise-choir world, serving up a routinely plotted competition drama in which Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton (playing her first bigscreen lead in 20 years) vie for control of a small-town Georgia church chorus. Will they join forces and win the contest? Is the Pope white? Though the journey is woefully predictable, the starry fireworks show should inspire a mix of black and heartland believers.
Those hoping for a wholesome studio-backed depiction of the Christian lifestyle, however, will be disappointed to find a movie in which romantic passion, rather than religious fervor, flows through the members of the Pacashau Sacred Divinity Choir. Characters use the choir as a sort of dating service, giving writer-director Todd Graff various couplings to track as the story hits all the predictable notes concerning an economically strapped community and the national competition they believe could change their fortune.
After choirmaster Bernard Sparrow (Kris Kristofferson) suffers a heart attack at the annual Joyful Noise showcase, Pastor Dale (Courtney B. Vance) names Vi Rose Hill (Latifah) to take over, bypassing Sparrow’s spitfire widow, G.G. (Parton). While the two women try to get past their contempt for one another, their kids — Keke Palmer as Vi Rose’s 16-year-old daughter, Olivia; Broadway-trained Jeremy Jordan as G.G.’s hot-to-trot grandson, Randy — spark instant chemistry.
Though operating strictly within the formulaic conventions of earlier underdog contest movies, Graff (who builds on his musical background after “Camp” and “Bandslam”) whisks past the reliable comedic approach of marshalling a ragtag group of misfits into an unlikely team, or the prodigal-son dramatics of 2005’s “The Gospel.” Instead, he chooses to accentuate the dueling divas, culminating in a catty showdown at the restaurant where Vi Rose holds her second job. She unloads insults while G.G. throws biscuits and barbs back across the dining room, taking the whole scene deliciously over the top.
Meanwhile, the younger generation’s star-crossed dynamic feels more boilerplate. Randy is a problematic character, owing partly to casting and partly to design (though appealing, Jordan feels even more the former Mouseketeer than the Justin Timberlake-like character he portrays). Randy wants to seduce Vi Rose’s daughter, but at the same time, he volunteers to give piano lessons to Vi Rose’s other child, an Asperger case implausibly played by Dexter Darden. With its odd tonal mix of sass and sentimentality, “Joyful Noise” falls somewhere between Tyler Perry and the Disney Channel, offering up lively but far-from-lifelike characters.
Mulishly stubborn, Vi Rose represents the voice of conservative Christian values in the face of a fast-evolving world. “Don’t you bring all that Mariah/Christina mess up in here!” she snaps when Olivia starts riffing during rehearsal. It’s a losing battle, since “Joyful Noise” gleefully toys with the gospel tradition, preaching the need to jettison stodgy spirituals and instead make way for elaborate, pop-infused Kirk Franklin-style dance numbers (Franklin himself makes a flashy appearance halfway through).
And so it happens that a soulful rendition of “Man in the Mirror” becomes the template for all the music that follows. Yet, the Pacashau choir’s concert-level final performance — a transformation quite foreign from its rehearsals, featuring elaborate solos by bit players who’ve had only minutes of screentime prior — doesn’t seem quite genuine.
Then again, despite the sheer volume of music on offer, very little of it feels authentic — or especially inspiring. Few of these characters feel like people you might find in a near-bankrupt Georgia town, and when they do open their mouths to sing, their lip-synching is no match for the powerhouse voices (or fully orchestrated accompaniment) on the soundtrack.
Acting in good sport, Parton makes light of her own artifice (“God didn’t make plastic surgeons so they could starve,” she quips memorably), but it’s the film that seems to have undergone the most work, clumsily nipped and tucked to the extent that scenes don’t flow so much as stack up on one another. At the very least, for those desperate to find a Middle American moviegoing experience, in Parton and Latifah, “Joyful Noise” has two game stars as a saving grace.