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Joyful Noise: Feel-Good Musical Fun

By Sunny Choi · January 15, 2012

When I first went into see Joyful Noise, I was expecting to see something like Sister Act 2, basically a movie in which a bunch of talented underdogs must win a choir competition for an uplifting cause. Although they do share similar premises, Joyful Noise explores the plights of multiple characters instead of relying on one focal point. Joyful Noise’s fair script and talented cast work in tandem to deliver an enjoyable feel-good story.

Pacshau, Georgia has been wiped out by multiple foreclosures and unemployment. The church choir remains the only beacon of hope in this town. With regionals just in two weeks, its choir director, Bernie Sparrow (Kris Kristofferson) dies of a heart attack. Pastor Dale (Courtney B. Vance) appoints Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah) as choir director. Although Bernie’s wife, G.G. (Dolly Parton), initially feels disappointed for being passed over, she accepts the situation. Her rebellious grandson, Randy (Jeremy Jordan), returns to town and falls head over heels for Vi Rose’s beautiful and talented daughter, Olivia (Keke Palmer). Although Randy joins the choir primarily to be closer to Olivia, he brings an essential makeover for the choir so they have a shot at winning the national choral competition, Joyful Noise. While Olivia and G.G. support Randy modernizing their act, Vi Rose strongly opposes this change, and Pastor Dale even threatens to cut off all financial support.

After her unemployed husband left the family to join the army, Vi Rose works full time as a nurse and as a choir director to support her two children, one of whom has Asperger’s Syndrome. She often conflicts with Olivia, who besides experiencing love and puberty, misses her father above all. Vi Rose micromanages even the way Olivia sings, telling her not to bring “Mariah and Christina” into her performances and instead submit herself as God’s instrument. On the other hand, Olivia feels special only when she’s singing and resents her mother’s controlling tendencies. Struggling under multiple responsibilities, Vi Rose seeks to protect Olivia from everything she deems as negatively influential. She especially wants to protect her daughter from “no-good troublemakers” like Randy. This subplot contained numerous clichés but was bearable largely because of Latifah’s compelling performance.

The heartfelt exchange between Walter (Dexter Darden), who has Asperger’s, and Vi Rose was emotionally moving and very sad, especially when he asks his mother why she likes Gospels. I still remember Walter’s tearful accusation: “You spend all your time singing to God and He’s the one that made me this way. You should hate him if you love me.” I felt like this line captures a universal struggle to explain and make sense of the unfortunate tragedies in this world. While I initially thought that Vi Rose might be ashamed of Walter, her encouraging response totally disproved my gut reactions: “God broke the mold when he made you. If you don’t fit the box, then break it and make a bigger one.” During the few times like these, the script and characterization supports the great acting.

I also really liked Randy’s friendship with Walter. It definitely shed another light on his character, as he starts giving Walter piano lessons to fulfill his musical aspirations and overcome his fear of working alongside others. Randy could have been presented as the roguish guy who shakes things up and dates the goody-two-shoes, but he is truly painted as a boy with all the right intentions who has happened to have a couple bad breaks, including growing up under an abusive mother. He makes some mistakes, but his head isn’t just set on just girls and music–he cares deeply about his only family, G.G., and Walter, who is often ostracized and bullied for his condition. While this depiction can be considered excessively positive, the characters on the whole were likable and fitting for a feel-good movie.

To balance out the Hills’ serious drama, the writers endowed Parton’s G.G. with some of the funniest lines–I wish she would have had more screen time. To counter Vi Rose’s outright rejection of any musical remix, G.G. says, “I’d call you stubborn, but that’d be an insult to a mule.” The funniest scene in this movie was the showdown between these two characters, as G.G. fights back, pelting Vi Rose with dinner rolls and ice cubes. She defends her surgical procedures: “So what if I’ve had a few nips and tucks? God didn’t make plastic surgeons so they would starve!” G.G. essentially acts as the fairy godmother who brings together mothers and daughters and even her rebellious grandson with the church. But G.G. isn’t just the comic figure, as she is coping with the loss of her husband. While performing her own song, From Here to the Moon and Back, G.G. allows herself to grieve just for a moment, recollecting romantic evenings with her husband. The good thing about this movie, as I keep saying again, is that the acting, vocal talent, and lines have decent chemistry–I wouldn’t write it off as a mere choral, churchy version of Glee because it contains a coherent plot and sympathetic characters. While I must admit that the writing is not brilliant, it works to support Parton’s astute comic timing and the human-interest stories of multiple characters.

While most of us probably know of Parton’s and Latifah’s acting and vocal talent, this film also introduces the numerous talents of Palmer and Jordan. Unlike most annoying teenage couples in movies, Palmer and Jordan possess good chemistry, especially in their rendition of Paul McCartney’s Maybe I’m Amazed. Jordan is especially a great find in this film, even holding his own even while performing From Here Back to the Moon with Parton herself.

Although the remixes themselves weren’t entirely anything new (For example, you are not going to find a rap version of Willie Nelson’s song), they allowed the cast’s vocal talent to shine. The film had some memorable renditions of Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror, Sly Stone’s I Want to Take You Higher, The Left Banke’s Walk Away Renee, and Fix Me Jesus. I must admit that the church-appropriate version of Usher’s Yeah was a little hokey (“I’m in the church with my homies…”).

This movie would be a girls’ night out flick for women over age 40. And if you’re a fan of the vanishing genre of musical comedy, I would strongly encourage you to watch it. Although it doesn’t reach the ranks of Mr. Holland’s Opus or Sister Act, Joyful Noise offers a good ratio of gravity, humor, fun, and music to entertain for the entire time.