by Peter Paras | Thu., Jan. 12, 2012 7:15 PM
Review in a Hurry: Dolly Parton, Queen Latifah and Keke Palmer face off for the ultimate churchy showdown. The fairly predictable story about a choir that dreams of winning the National Joyful Noise Competition impresses with song and dance numbers that soar. And we're saying it: No matter how obvious things are, any film that delivers a Latifah-Parton food fight...well, we really can't hate. Get ready for Glee-inspired mashups refashioned for the Faithful. Just wait until you hear the Usher's hit "Yeah!" written as "I'm in the church with my homies!"
The Bigger Picture: The small town of Pacashau, Ga., has fallen into hard times, so the townsfolk need the Divinity Church Choir to lift their spirits. But when choir director Bernie Sparrow (Kris Kristofferson with maybe a minute of screen time) up and dies, the pastor (the reliable Courtney B. Vance) must name a replacement. He chooses Vi Rose Hill (Latifah), which doesn't go over well with Sparrow's widow, G.G. (Parton). She wants to take the choir to new directions—pop music! casual attire!—but knows that will never happen with Vi in charge.
Also, nervous about Vi's newfound power, her teenage daughter Olivia (Palmer), who still isn't allowed to date boys. That's gonna be tough since Sparrow's hunky troublemaker grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordan) has just moved to town. He's the kind of bad boy who sings like Zac Efron, looks like Chris Pine and (no joke) teaches Vi's son to cope with his Asperger's syndrome through music.
The structure is pretty straightforward, moving scene-to-scene with big musical numbers leading up to the competition. From M.J.'s "Man in the Mirror" to the aforementioned Usher hit, many of the tunes are pop centric. Still, a nice variety of soulful gospel songs are also on display. Nearly everyone is a showstopper.
The often hard to pull off religious angle feels unforced. Granted, you don't need to be a believer to enjoy the performances, but having the character's faith front and center works well. Don't get us wrong, there's a whole lot of preaching going on, but it's politics-free. (The lessons: Honor your family and stick up for what you believe in. Got it.)
As an actress, Latifah has never had a lot of range (neither has Parton), but her dealings with Palmer show off her talent for verbal sparring. Palmer (Akeelah and the Bee) keeps pace with the Queen. The iconic Dolly does look mighty strange with all the plastic surgery, but to the film's credit the script acknowledges it, making it a part of her character's backstory. What convinces is that all three are extremely charismatic in their own diva-esque way.
Writer-director Todd Graff (Bandslam) zeroes in on the built-in demographic for such a film and mostly keeps things respectful. If not for a few scene-specific uses of profanity, the film could have been rated G.
Noise might wear its belief in the Almighty plainly, but it never shies away from letting the characters duke it out both literally (Latifah head-locking Parton!) and spiritually.
The 180—a Second Opinion: A shame that the budget is so limiting (did it all go to Parton and Latifah?) Joyful might be charmer but the production value is marginally better than made for TV.
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