Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Play That Funky Music Church Boy
We gotta have a little church up here, and Joyful Noise if nothing else lives up to its title. The soundtrack is a lot of fun, mixing good gospel with some rather surprising, dare I say, shocking mixes of the pious and the profane. If one had put more effort into making Joyful Noise into a more cohesive story, or at the very least put more focus on the musical numbers, one might have had a good film. Right now, you have a series of short videos tied together with very little.
The Pacashau, Georgia church choir is in the midst of competition when choir director Bernard Sparrow (Kris Kristopherson) dies. His widow, G.G. (Dolly Parton) expects to take over, but Pastor Dale (Courtney B. Vance) decides to let Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah) lead. Vi Rose and G.G. have never seen eye-to-eye on much, and this is just another point of contention.
Vi Rose is a strict traditionalist in almost every way, in particular with church music. She doesn't go for any contemporary styles and thinks a traditional version of Not Enough Love will be just the thing to win them the Joyful Noise National Competition. Given that they've done this song in the same way every year for more years than the choir cares to remember and they always lose Regionals to a large choir from Detroit, one wonders why this has never been brought to Vi Rose's attention.
However, she has other things on her mind. Her daughter Olivia (Keke Palmer) is becoming a woman, and a rebellious one at that. She actually wants to see her Army father who rejoined to provide for his family (even if it means having to be stationed far away, presumably in Georgia). Vi Rose also has her hands full with her son Walter (Dexter Darden), a young man with Asperger's which makes things awkward at times for them.
Enter Randy Garrity (Jeremy Jordan), G.G.'s black sheep of a grandson. He's come to his grandma's to live after running away from her daughter (who did not attend her father's funeral, I might add). He is there among other things to restart a romance with Olivia, who does not return his affection. However, Randy connects with Walter as no one has, and with a little pressure gets into the choir (a justified move given Randy can sing).
Well, while all the other choirmembers have their issues (romantic and financial), it's Vi Rose that faces the biggest difficulties. Her husband is away, her son has special needs, and her daughter years to sing songs her way. A little good fortune comes their way when the Detroit choir (headed by Kirk Franklin in a cameo) is disqualified for having professionals. Now, it's off to Los Angeles, but with some missing choir members. One, a certain Mr. Hsu (Frances Jue) died after a night of passion with Earla (Angela Grovey), G.G. is pushed out after her financial support is rejected by the church which doesn't want any difficulties and Randy is all but banned by Vi Rose.
Eventually, all our principals meet again and reconcile in time to do their big musical number, a medley that manages to work in Sly and the Family Stone's I Wanna Take You Higher, Chris Brown's Forever, Stevie Wonder's Signed, Sealed, Delivered, and most surprisingly (and I might say, shockingly), Usher's Yeah into a giant Song of Praise.
Let's leave aside for the moment how exactly Yeah, a song about a one night stand by someone who was already seeing someone, can be rewritten to a song about being saved by Jesus Christ (at one point, Jesus is referred to as a homeboy, theologically questionable). The fact that we have NEVER in Joyful Noise seen the choir rehearse this big medley shows that the film really isn't interested in logic. It is only interested in being a showcase for some good music.
I think that at heart, Joyful Noise is suppose to be more about the music than about the plot. If that's the case, then writer/director Todd Graff then did well when he focused on the musical performances, whether it was the traditional Not Enough Love or the Latifah solo Fix Me Jesus or Parton's From Here To the Moon. In short, all the musical numbers were pleasant and well-made, showcasing each of our lead's singing abilities.
In terms of everything else, Joyful Noise is a mess. Plot points and characters are introduced only to be dropped with nary a how'do. What is suppose to be a major threat from the Detroit choir (which begs the question, if Michigan AND Georgia are competing in the same Region, exactly how large is this district?) is resolved rather quickly. Furthermore, given we've seen how square the choir is, exactly how did THEY end up in second place?
I digress to say that it is good to see Kirk Franklin perform. Even though he is a relatively small man in stature, his stage presence is a powerful one. He is an amazing performer who I can best describe as James Brown meets Michael W. Smith. Although it is just one scene where Franklin appears, he is still someone that feels the Spirit when he performs, and it is a treat to watch him, even in this cameo. He is an extraordinary showman, one that might even get Richard Dawkins or Ira Glass shouting "Amen" should Franklin ever ask for a witness.
Going on to how unorganized Joyful Noise is, in the National Competition we are given a choir of twelve-year-olds from Our Lady of Perpetual Tears (must be a Catholic school) as their chief competition. Given that at one point the main singer actually broke out in tongues during his performance (something I've never seen in a Catholic service), how the medley managed to sway the judges is a mystery. The children's choir was just there for decoration and false foil for our choir.
I can say that both Parton and Latifah acquitted themselves well in their performances. The highlight of Joyful Noise was seeing them go at it in a restaurant (a point in the film that did make me laugh). Besides, who doesn't want to see Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton go at it? Both Palmer and Jordan make for great singers, but it is difficult to judge whether they are good actors given that their roles were so thinly written. Similarly, both Vance as the Pastor and Jesse Martin as Mr. Hill had little to do.
One thing I especially disliked was Darden's Walter. I find that films that use illnesses such as Asperger's for 'character' are a little off-putting if not slightly sleazy. Somehow, a disorder is not something I'm comfortable seeing in someone to give him a particular trait. It's only after we're told he has Asperger's that things come a little more into focus, because if not for that, we'd think he was out of touch. Somehow, Walter seems genuinely surprised no one wants to be around him.
Joyful Noise is a bad film. Let's not pretend it's anything else. However, given that it doesn't ask much from us and has good musical numbers and performances, we can extend a little grace to Joyful Noise.