Friday, January 13, 2012

Joyful Noise

Film Review by Jack Silbert
It would be entirely too easy to refer to this movie as the “gospel Glee” And it wouldn’t be fair, either. Writer/director Todd Graff was totally pre-Glee with the whole singing/dancing kids thing, back with his charming 2003 debut Camp. And once again, he’s created an upbeat, warm-hearted, music-filled tale that is perfect for families. And yes, I’d say that even if Graff—as a young actor—didn’t share a few seconds of screen time with my parents in 1987’s Sweet Lorraine. (But that’s a story for another time.)

Going in, I was a little worried that this movie would try too hard to please everybody. You’ve got urban (Queen Latifah), country (Dolly Parton), kids (Keke Palmer, a.k.a. Nickelodeon’s True Jackson), and the Glee factor: spirited, choreographed renditions of popular tunes. And was Graff going to the well once too often? For the third time in a row (after Camp and Bandslam), his plot revolves around a gang of musical misfits reaching for that brass ring.

Thankfully, the movie does not feel calculated or recycled, and that’s a testament to Graff’s sunny outlook and a terrific, enthusiastic cast. Queen Latifah proves that no one will be taking her crown anytime soon. She plays Vi Rose Hill, church choir leader and (ostensibly) single mom, giving her all to maintain her two “families.” Latifah delivers a couple of truly powerful speeches, though I’d expect no less from a Jersey girl. Dolly Parton provides many laughs, wrote three wonderful new songs for the movie, and shares a beautiful, understated scene with Kris Kristofferson. And much credit to Dolly for poking fun at herself, cracking jokes about aging and plastic surgery. (She looks great, by the way.) A hilarious verbal and physical fight between Latifah and Parton is one of the film’s best moments.

Keke Palmer gives a strong performance as Latifah’s daughter, nearing womanhood but not quite there yet. And I was impressed with newcomer Jeremy Jordan as Parton’s grandson. There are so many faceless young talents around, but Jordan exudes a bit of substance. Looks-wise, he first called to mind a young McNulty from The Wire. Then it hit me: He looks kind of like, yes, Glee’s Matthew Morrison. Fans of middle-initialed Law & Order franchise cast members will be happy to see both Jesse L. Martin and Criminal Intent’s Courtney B. Vance.

It’s not a perfect movie—plot points are glossed over, conflicts are resolved too easily, some characters are broadly drawn, etc. But the flaws almost become part of the charm, and help make this a great family film. There’s an innocent, “aw shucks, let’s put on a show!” feel to the proceedings. (The Muppets had similar appeal.) A lot of topics are touched on that you can discuss later with the kids: balancing religion and secular life; single-parent households (and disputes that arise); the economy; the war; even Asperger’s syndrome. As for the PG-13 rating, it’s a pretty soft PG-13: just a little bit of cussing (the second time around, it’s in a convincing denunciation of swear words) and a couple of conversations refer to, you know, “doing it” (though only between consenting adults).


And then there’s the music. I don’t watch Glee, American Idol, etc. etc., but if they are anything like this movie, then I guess I see the attraction. From Keke Palmer leading a dynamic version of “Man in the Mirror,” to a fiery performance from gospel superstar Kirk Franklin, to a no-holds-barred grand finale, I was tapping my foot throughout and even choked back a tear or two. One thing is certain: Joyful Noise is aptly named.

Jack Silbert is a writer of children's books, restaurant reviews, witty essays, and the like. He lives in Hoboken, N.J.

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