‘Joyful Noise’: High signal-to-noise ratio

January 12, 2012

In terms of creating moments that capture the excitement a live musical performance can arouse, Todd Graff knows his stuff. He showed it in 2003’s underrated “Camp,” in 2009’s disposable “Bandslam” – and he does it again in “Joyful Noise,” a movie with big, rousing soul-gospel songs that take your mind off how mediocre – or worse – the rest of the movie is.

The obvious model for “Joyful Noise” is “Glee” (except for the TV show’s gay subtext). We have the eager but underfunded (and, seemingly, outmoded) little choir, going up against the big-city Goliaths in a national gospel competition called, appropriately, Joyful Noise.

Graff seemingly has seen his share of backstage musicals – and tries to condense them all into the script for this one. The elements may be modern but the archetypes are as old as movie musicals or, for that matter, drama.

The film is about a church choir from tiny Pacashau, Ga., which annually makes it to the semi-finals of the national Joyful Noise contest – but no farther. They’re first seen competing at the quarter-finals, with a choir that includes both Queen Latifah (as Vi Rose Hill) and Dolly Parton (as G.G. Sparrow) as soloists.

Right off the bat, things get dramatic: The choir leader, G.G.’s husband Bernard (Kris Kristofferson), suffers a heart attack in the middle of their performance – but the choir keeps singing, even as G.G. helps the dying Bernard off the stage.

Spoiler alert: Yes, that’s right – Kristofferson dies in the very first scene and doesn’t appear again (except in a fantasy musical sequence, croaking a duet with Parton). Smart move.

G.G., the richest woman in town and the church’s chief benefactor, is upset when the church’s pastor informs her that he’s making Vi Rose the choir master instead of G.G. But she soldiers on because, hey, the semifinals are coming up – and because Parton apparently needs to pay for all that cosmetic surgery that has turned her face into a Joan Rivers-like cartoon.

Vi Rose’s daughter Olivia (Keke Palmer) is in the choir – and suddenly, so is G.G.’s visiting grandson, Randy (Jeremy Jordan), who has a hankering for Olivia. They team up with G.G. to try to convince the tradition-bound Vi Rose that the choir needs a more modern approach.

Other salient plot points: Vi Rose’s husband has reenlisted in the army at 35 because he can’t make a living, leaving the family on its own. Vi Rose’s son Walter has Asperger’s syndrome – the most popular disability in movies these days because it provides an easy source of cheap laughs. (I’m not saying I find Asperger’s amusing; I’m saying screenwriters seem to think it is.)

Anything else? Well, there’s the chubby choir member (Angela Grovey) who has a thing for the choir’s sole Asian member (which leads to a grimly funny punchline when they eventually hook up).

There’s more, too much more in a film that’s almost two hours long. The script is awash in country witticisms (“People who are wrapped up in themselves end up with small packages”). There are so many time-wasting scenes with crushingly obvious emotional payoffs that Graff could have trimmed this to a 90-minute Lifetime movie without strain.

Everybody gets to sing – a lot – and Palmer and Jordan are definite discoveries as vocalists. Plus it’s a treat to see real-life gospel star Kirk Franklin work out energetically onstage – he’s part holy roller, part James Brown.

Graff’s M.O. is to repurpose pop songs (everything from “Maybe I’m Amazed” to “I Wanna Take You Higher”) as God-centric gospel performance pieces, with elaborate arrangements and choreography. As much as I liked the music, I had the same shrugging reaction to “Joyful Noise” that I do whenever I’m forced to watch the kids on “Glee” reconfigure some pop hit in a manner that someone thought was cute:

OK, I get it. Next.

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