THE title of Todd Graff’s musical love story promises jubilation, or at the very least raised spirits, but any joy is fleeting.
Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton are well matched as the fiery matriarchs of an ailing church choir, and both actresses enjoy sparky dialogue and some stirring solos, but Graff’s script is simplistic and cloyingly sentimental.
Characters are sketched in disappointingly broad strokes, singing from a hymn sheet that has been borrowed from the TV series Glee and its imitators.
Musical numbers are undeniably rousing, including a climactic mash-up of Sly And The Family Stone, Usher and Stevie Wonder that gives the choir a realistic shot of winning the obligatory sing-off at a national championship.
Yet for all of its heart, not to mention Parton’s boundless good cheer, Joyful Noise fails to hit any emotional high notes
In the God-fearing Georgia town of Pacashau, local businesses are struggling to survive and the Sacred Divinity Church, led by Pastor Dale (Courtney B Vance), is the focus of everyone’s prayers.
The choir led by Bernard Sparrow (Kris Kristofferson) inspires hope, so when he passes away suddenly, Pastor Dale appoints Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah) as the new director to follow a traditional path of uplifting Gospel music.
Vi imposes her will, quashing any discussion about the repertoire by telling one singer: “Save time, see it my way.”
Only Bernard’s sassy wife, GG (Dolly Parton), dares to stand up to Vi, warning the new director that she needs to be open to suggestions if they are to win the upcoming final of the Joyful Noise singing competition.
GG’s handsome grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordan) comes to town and promptly falls for Vi’s teenage daughter, Olivia (Keke Palmer).
“You date that girl, Vi Rose will just about lay square eggs,” warns GG.
Unperturbed, Randy inspires Olivia to follow her dreams – “Do you want to be a church girl all your life? There is so much more to you than that” -–and forges a bond with Vi’s autistic son Walter (Dexter Darden), who enjoys playing the piano.
As the final beckons, Randy and GG suggest contemporary song arrangements for the competition but Vi is unmoved, her pride coming before an inevitable fall.
Joyful Noise relies heavily on the chemistry between Latifah and Parton, and their verbal sparring has its moments, such as when Vi pokes fun at GG’s cosmetic enhancements and the pint-sized dynamo retorts, “God did not make plastic surgeons so they could starve.”
Palmer and Jordan are an insipid romantic pairing but they sing beautifully as the soundtrack swings from gooey ballads to upbeat exultations to the Lord.
Praise be that Graff doesn’t extend his saccharine sermon beyond two hours.