By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Joyful Noise is a good movie when it lifts up its heart and lets people sing. There are some tremendous vocal performances here, and most of them don't showcase the movie's stars, Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton. But they're no slouches with a lyric, either.
An overstuffed plot about winning a national church choir competition is nothing more than Gospel Glee. Yet it allows writer-director Todd Graff to assemble gifted, mostly youthful voices singing praises to God, and not in the old, rugged cross kind of way. They turn songs by Michael Jackson, Sly Stone, Paul McCartney and Usher into jubilant expressions of faith that might make believers dance on their knees.
Latifah plays Vi Rose Hill, a devoted churchgoer deserted by her husband and strictly raising two children: passively rebellious Olivia (Keke Palmer) and Walter (Dexter Darden), whose autism keeps him musically obsessed with one-hit wonders. Parton plays G.G. Sparrow, recent widow of the choir director, who resents Vi Rose being chosen to take over.
Of course they'll make amends, then differ again on the sweet romance brewing between Olivia and G.G.'s grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordan). Vi Rose won't agree to adding secular music to the song list, or to take back her husband, until just the right moment. People change their minds a lot in Joyful Noise, just to keep the sentimental story churning.
Yet when the music begins, Graff channels that sentimentality into vibrant musical numbers. Some are elaborate, like a soul-shaking take on Billy Preston's That's The Way God Planned It by Our Lady of Perpetual Tears Choir, featuring a firebrand named Ivan Kelley. Palmer turns in a stirring rendition of Jackson's Man in the Mirror, and Latifah sings Fix Me, Jesus in a mesmerizing hush. Parton's showcase From Here to the Moon and Back is corny, but that's why folks love her.
Graff has proven himself an expert at teenage musical fantasy that isn't pop tart exploitation. Go back to his charming debut Camp, or the cruelly overlooked Bandslam to find young people with simple ambitions and complex motivations. The music isn't top 40 now but celebrates rhythms that aren't out of style: Broadway standards, '70s rock and now gospel. Graff is a filmmaker whom parents shouldn't be concerned about.
Joyful Noise is the latest release from Alcon Entertainment, after the family-friendly Dolphin Tale and The Blind Side, and The Book of Eli, a biblical action flick. You can see the path Alcon chooses to walk, and while Joyful Noise isn't the other films' equal, its heart is in the same, right place.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365.