If you’re starting to feel just about now that the red state versus blue state hostilities have gotten over-the-top nasty as can be when it comes to the current presidential election rivalry, you haven’t read the reviews stacking up for the gospel dramedy musical, Joyful Noise. In which added to the usual dismissive chick flick condescension whenever the stars are older females who are neither objects of desire (My Week With Marilyn) nor pity (The Iron Lady), is an undercurrent of gleeful scorn – in this case targeting American rural and heartland inclinations.
Okay, so Joyful Noise – appropriately enough slated for release on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday – is burdened with intermittent musical and emotional excesses, and plot points veering into derivative rather than new and different territory. But writer/director Todd Graff (Camp,Bandslam) is not without a method to his often music madness kooky collage of clashing genres confounding the film’s competing choirs. Owing to the fact that among the major roots of all US based music – and that can indeed be defined as classical American music in origin – is gospel and by extension the blues.
In a movie that practically telegraphs its subversive ways from the start, Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah are G.G. Sparrow and Vi Rose Hill respectively – rivals battling over control of a small town Georgia choir. This, after Sparrow’s choir leader spouse (Kris Kristofferson) abruptly drops dead during a performance in the opening first minutes of the film.
But there are other exacerbating issues kicking in, that are far from joyful. The rural community is dying too, suffering during the current economic crisis. And town foreclosures are in full swing. The burden of hard times falls especially on Vi’s shoulders – single mom to rebellious teen daughter Olivia (Keke Palmer) and a mentally disabled autistic son, Walter (Dexter Darden) – while holding down two jobs as waitress and nursing home orderly to make ends meet. Along with an out of work husband (Jesse L. Martin) who abandoned the family out of shame and joined the army, and is about to be shipped to a war zone.
And to compound matters, the most anticipated yearly event that lifts the spirits of this doomed town – competing in a national gospel contest even if they always lose – is also up for extinction. That is, when the pastor of the church (Courtney B. Vance) alerts the choir that they no longer have any money to participate.
Though sinking under the weight of what may be termed the eighth deadly sin in Joyful Noise – an overcrowded playing field of colliding plots and excessively orchestrated musical numbers – there is a generous amount of soulful heart and humor as well. And a religiously themed movie not shy about challenging religious concepts. In particular, a mentally handicapped son who questions the existence of a caring deity who would make him suffer – and the film’s choice to raise such dilemmas and have them remain that way.
And finally, nearly upstaging everything else in Joyful Noise, is a cover of Billy Preston’s ‘That’s the Way’ classic by Ivan Kelley’s Our Lady of Perpetual Tears Youth Choir. And in a performance that, red state or blue state, may very likely take your breath away.
2 1/2 stars