Friday, January 13, 2012

Joyful Noise: An irritating din

Joyful Noise (2012) • View trailer
2.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, and too harshly, for brief profanity and a vague sexual reference
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.13.12

It must be January; Hollywood is serving holiday leftovers again.

Despite having its heart in the right place, this film is a mess: too long, too slow, too clumsily melodramatic and too old-school, with respect to its too many songs. Remember the worst 1960s and ’70s musicals, when the story simply stopped every 10 minutes, so that some other cast member could warble a tune?
The Pacashau Sacred Divinity Choir — featuring G.G. Sparrow (Dolly Parton,
center left), Olivia Hill (Keke Palmer, center) and her mother, Vi Rose (Queen
Latifah) — gets plenty of respect in their home town, but the competition is
much tougher during the annual Joyful Noise choir competition.

That’s what we have here: a total throwback. And not in a good sense.

Todd Graf definitely loves the let’s-put-on-a-show genre, having turned writer/director with 2003’s sweet and quite entertaining Camp, which translated the young folks’ performance school template from Fame to a summer camp setting. Graf waited six years before modifying the formula slightly for 2009’s equally appealing Bandslam — new kid in town assembles fledgling rock band, accompanied by his school’s two hottest chicks — and suffered the indignity of copycat bad timing, since TV’s Glee had debuted that same year.

Which brings us to Joyful Noise, wherein Graf has layered the same concept — with less success — onto a church choir setting in the tiny community of Pacashau, Ga.

Unfortunately, Glee has raised the bar on all such performer-wannabe musicals. And that’s the major problem here: An average 42-minute episodes of Glee delivers far more credible angst, integrated much more smoothly with the obligatory songs, than this lumbering, 118-minute behemoth.

Matters aren’t helped by Graf’s kitchen-sink script, which doesn’t overlook a single opportunity for tragedy or misery. He opens his film with a sudden death — an eyeblink cameo by guest Kris Kristofferson — and it’s all downhill from there. Resentful, abandoned wife? Check. With a son who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome? Check. And a daughter suddenly attracted to the newly arrived “bad boy” in town? Check. The small-town setting, with desperate residents losing homes and businesses left and right, due to the lousy economy? Check, check and check.

This is supposed to be a light-hearted, feel-good musical?

Indeed, that’s a serious problem: Graf can’t decide what he wants his film to be. These morose characters are bad enough; far worse are the occasional attempts at comic relief, as when one poor woman — Angela Grovey, as Earla — has a rather disastrous night of passion with a fellow choir member. I can’t imagine what Graf was thinking, with this subplot.

Then there’s the Dolly Parton issue ... which, in fairness, isn’t Graf’s fault.

There’s no kind way to say this: Parton’s prior history of, ah, physical enhancement has come back to haunt her. Seeing her play a scene here — any scene — is like watching somebody try to act through a Halloween mask. Her face is incapable of registering change, which makes happiness indistinguishable from deep sorrow. The result is cringe-worthy at worst, and quite distracting at best.

To be sure, Parton’s voice still carries its familiar twang and sparkle, so I suggest closing your eyes when she sings, in order to remember the vibrant screen presence from better, distant days. Comparing this waxworks figure to the firebrand who dominated Nine to Five and Steel Magnolias, back in the 1980s, is simply sad.

She stars here as G.G. Sparrow — the initials standing for her nickname, Gorgeous Grandma — one of the featured soloists of the Pacashau Sacred Divinity Choir. G.G. shares that honor with Vi Rose (Queen Latifah), a single mother working two jobs in order to provide for blossoming 16-year-old daughter Olivia (Keke Palmer, the charming star of Nickelodeon’s True Jackson) and her 15-year-old brother, Walter (Dexter Darden), who endures the social ostracism of his Asperger’s issues.

G.G. and Olivia have been trying to drag the choir into the 21st century, but Vi Rose dismisses anything she deems insufficiently biblical. So while the ensemble can raise local spirits with toe-tapping renditions of its anthem, “Not Enough,” such material isn’t enough when it comes to competition on the road. For four years now, Pacashau has lost the national competition to its nemesis: Detroit’s Holy Vision Church.

As a result, Sacred Divinity’s Pastor Dale (Courtney B. Vance) has laid down the law: If they don’t win this year, there won’t be a next time. Competition is expensive, and the church funds would be better used elsewhere.

This combustible brew is further spiced by the sudden arrival of G.G.’s grandson, Randy (newcomer Jeremy Jordan, an exuberant and talented presence), a “bad kid from the wrong side of the tracks.” At least, that’s what various characters keep telling us; there’s certainly no sign of anything even approaching unpleasant behavior. Heck, Randy isn’t even rude.

And yet nobody — except the doting G.G. — cuts the kid any slack, starting with the Bible-quoting Vi Rose and including the oddly dour Pastor Dale, who seems to have forgotten all those scriptures about forgiveness and tolerance. This, from a man of God?

Vi Rose’s narrow-mindedness is especially absurd, particularly after Randy “reaches” the withdrawn Walter within five minutes of meeting him. Talk about miracle therapy...

Naturally, Randy falls head over heels with Olivia, and who wouldn’t? Potential conflict surfaces in the form of Manny (Paul Woolfolk), a local kid who also has eyes for the girl, but that subplot gets shunted aside after a laughably brief “fight” between the two young men. Manny returns to this story, in the film’s third act, in a manner that’s even more contrived.

Credibility simply doesn’t exist. Graf’s dialogue and conversational exchanges are tin-eared and wholly unbelievable, particularly when characters are angry with each other. A third-act explosion between Vi Rose and Olivia is eyebrow-raising for its clumsiness. Queen Latifah and Palmer do their best — the former at least bringing some indignant spunk to the table — but the exchange simply doesn’t play.

I kept waiting for updated examples of the engaging misfit characters Graf conceived so well — and with such affection — in Camp, but they never surface here. Andy Karl has promise as Caleb, a sidebar character who puts a face to Pacashau’s foreclosure crisis, but Graf’s script doesn’t pay nearly enough attention to him.

That leaves us with the music, which also runs an uneven gamut. Parton contributes three new songs: two performed by the choir — “Not Enough” and “He’s Everything” — and a romantic ballad, “From Here to the Moon and Back,” which G.G. croons in the memory of her recently deceased husband (Kristofferson’s hasty exit). Queen Latifah has a stirring solo with “Fix Me Jesus,” and Palmer has a good time with Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.”

I’m not sure, however, that some of the other choir numbers deliver the intended message. On the one hand, it’s wonderful to see a film — and storyline — that treat God and church worship so respectfully. On the other hand, the pop, rock and R&B touches intended to make traditional gospel songs more “relevant” slide into uncomfortable territory at times, never more so than during the Pacashau Sacred Divinity Choir’s climactic, competition-staged presentation of “The Higher Medley,” with its elements of Sly & The Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Chris Brown and Usher.

As a show-stopper, it’s a great production number. But somehow, the notion of singing God’s praises seems to have gotten lost along the way.

(That number is preceded by a revival-hall performance from members of the real-world Our Lady of Perpetual Tears Children’s Choir, with young soloist Ivan Kelley Jr. taking the lead on Billy Preston’s “That’s the Way God Planned It.” Kelley’s faux-adult delivery is downright creepy.)

By this point, we realize many things have been lost along the way. We need more quiet moments with G.G. and Randy, more time with poor Walter, more detail regarding the prickly relationship between G.G. and Vi Rose, which just sorta erupts because the script says so. In contrast, Graf does a much better job with the few scenes belonging to Jesse L. Martin, who is excellent as Vi Rose’s estranged husband; I wish Graf had displayed similar sensitivity and restraint with everybody else.

Ultimately, Joyful Noise just isn’t joyful enough.

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