The gospel musical Joyful Noise is flatly acted, oddly paced, indifferently edited, and derivatively — not to mention implausibly — scripted. So how on Earth does it manage to be so entertaining?
The Pacashau Sacred Divinity Choir from tiny Pacashau, Georgia is in trouble: its director, Bernie Sparrow (Kris Kristofferson), has a heart attack on stage in competition during the first five minutes of the film. The church’s pastor (Courtney B. Vance) and the council pass over his widow, G.G. (Dolly Parton), as his replacement, in favor of Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah). G.G. did help write most of the choir’s songs, but Vi Rose has been Bernie’s assistant for a while, along with raising her daughter, Olivia (Keke Palmer), and her son, Walter (Dexter Darden), alone while her husband, Marcus (Jesse L. Martin), is away, having re-enlisted in the Army to make ends meet.
Complicating matters, G.G.’s wild grandson, Randy (Jeremy Jordan) shows up out of nowhere. He immediately takes to Olivia, despite Vi’s disapproval of him, and not only because of her rivalry with his grandmother. But he proves himself a decent enough musician to join the choir, where he starts helping change their musical direction in the hopes of winning the national Joyful Noise gospel music competition, and giving the despairing citizens of run-down Pacashau something to be proud of. It’s basically Glee with an entirely different kind of queen.
I could easily blow any number of holes in the story, or the production, or the directorial choices. I mean, how do you put Jesse L. Martin of all people into a musical, and then not have the man sing a note? But to dwell entirely on the flaws wouldn’t really do justice to it. Yes, the plot is assembled from Tinkertoys and painted in primary colors; and yes, it telegraphs more than Western Union; and yes, plot elements are haphazardly strewn about like building blocks on the floor of a darkened room; but it has an essential — and sincere — sweetness that carries it up and over these faults.
Besides, have you ever gone back to watch a Cole Porter musical? They have just as many stock characters, canned drama, and too-convenient resolutions as we see here. They make the same awkward excuses to lead into all-but-disconnected musical numbers, and yet they’re still great entertainment.
Which brings us to the the music. Palmer and Jordan may not have any chemistry, but they’ve got chops. And of course if you don’t know what Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton can bring, you’ve been asleep for the last twenty-five and forty-five years, respectively.
But there’s one point that I want to bring up because I’m sure most everyone else will gloss right over it. One of the pre-fab plotlines is that Walter has Asperger syndrome, and Darden absolutely nails it, so clearly that I could pick it out long before they said the words. It’s not even the most original entry in the “character has disability to cope with/overcome” trope, but it’s easily the most touching, compassionate treatment of an autism spectrum disorder I’ve seen in the popular media. I may be biased, and I know that this arc is just as utilitarian as all the others we see, but there is a touch of greatness in its execution.
So sure, it’s corny and unoriginal, and at times it feels like it’s held together with baling wire and chewing gum, but if you give it a chance there’s surely something to enjoy about this movie.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.