Thursday, January 19, 2012

joyful noise

What is it about Queen Latifah? She has such a warm, pleasant screen presence. She plays against that natural glow a bit in Joyful Noise, as she plays a harried and cranky single mother, Vi Rose — single by circumstance, as her husband (Jesse L. Martin) has re-upped in the Army to escape a bad economy and his own guilty feelings at not being able to provide for his family.

Queen Latifah shines
Most of the internet chatter about this movie has been of the guilty pleasure variety. Critics have claimed to not want to like it. The plot is predictable, but then they admit to being swept away by the great music. And the movie is 75% music. Joyful Noise may be predictable, but most underdog movies are. Whether they are about high school football or basketball teams (The Replacements, Hoosiers), cheerleading squads (Bring It On), or church choirs — the protagonists will either win their competition or not. Either way lessons will be learned and romances will bloom.

My major hesitation in seeing this movie was Dolly Parton, who has been fighting gravity and age and anything resembling reality for a long time. But Dolly and the scriptwriters seemed well aware of such hesitations, and even worked it into her character, G.G., who is the only one in the choir who has her robes tailored to fit her voluptuous figure, and wears mile-high wigs and more make-up than the entire combined county population. She jokes about it herself, "Who cares if I've had a few little nips and tucks? God didn't make plastic surgeons so they could starve!" G.G. (and Dolly) may have had their faces lifted too many times to remember, but that's part of who they are, and they do it with such verve and humor it's hard to protest for long. Dolly did seem a little disconnected onscreen when she was in a scene where she was just one of the members of the chorus, but when she was the featured singer, her voice is as beautiful and affecting as ever.

Dolly Parton and Kris Kristofferson
Beneath all the crazy Dolly glitz and sentiment (a scene featuring a waltz with her deceased husband Kris Kristofferson was equal parts sweet and weird) there is, not surprisingly, a lot of heart and some great music. The pop tunes chosen for a much-needed update to the staid choir's repertoire are still appropriately inspirational (Michael Jackson's Man in the Mirror and Sly and the Family Stone's I Want to Take You Higher). Both Dolly and Queen Latifah are in magnificent voice, as are the supporting players. There is young romance provided by Vi Rose's daughter Olivia (Keke Palmer) and Dolly's nephew Randy (Jeremy Jordan). The pre-requisitely quirky choir members also each get moments to shine.

The movie's characters seem a little more real than we are used to seeing in movies. Besides Dolly, the make-up is appropriately subdued for small-town folk. The town where they live, like towns where many of us live, have a lot of closed and bankrupt businesses. Vi Rose's son Walter (Dexter Darden) has Asperger's syndrome. Nothing gets too heavy, because it's main purpose is fun, and it's all about the music. But Joyful Noise does seem less crass than its cinematic predecessor (which is also an enjoyable guilty pleasure) Sister Act.

By the time the last note is sung it is impossible not to smile. Joyful Noise is just that. You may not have been a fan of gospel or church music when you walked into the theater, but Queen Latifah and company will surely have you tapping and humming along to the music on the way out.
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