Like so many formulaic films about underdog triumph—sports films, dance films, snobs-vs.-slobs films—Joyful Noise is shameless about exaggerating for broad effect, and about flatly contradicting or undermining itself in the service of any touching or audience-rousing moment. It’s a film about triumph, but only for people who can accept every joyous or fierce moment as triumphant, regardless of how poorly it follows from the moment before it.
Or alternately, for people who dig the film’s rousing gospel arrangements of songs from Michael Jackson’s “Man In The Mirror” to Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.” The story, about a small-town choir trying to win a gospel sing-off, pokes vaguely at some dance-movie clichés: the outsider (Jeremy Jordan) who comes to town with radically jazzy, initially resisted ideas for revitalizing the moribund choir, the cornpone rivalry between choirmaster Queen Latifah and rich church supporter Dolly Parton, both of whom must learn to put aside their pride and cooperate. On top of that, Latifah’s daughter (Keke Palmer) starts defying her mother’s ultra-strict rules in order to sneak around with Parton’s bad-boy grandson Jordan. But ultimately, these threads and many more are just a rough frame for soul-stirring, energetically delivered songs, which are as much the predictable yet rewarding core of the film as the big game in those sports movies, or the inevitable dance contest in those dance films.
Actor-turned-writer/director Todd Graff (Camp, Bandslam) delivers admirably on the song sequences, but falls down in other areas: The scene-to-scene editing is often choppy and incoherent, and individual character interactions stretch on endlessly, well past the point of establishing tone. But Joyful Noise is likely to find a comfortable fandom who know exactly what they’re there for: Latifah ably alternating between warm, motherly charisma and kick-ass sternness; Parton (who, after repeated plastic surgeries, is as charming as ever, but has slid deep into the uncanny valley) dispensing wry one-liners and belting to the rafters; and a hefty dose of Christian-message-movie affirmation. Plenty of movies preach to the choir; this one literally does it with a choir. Like so many underdog movies, Joyful Noise will go over best with those who show up hugely eager for it to be exactly what it looks like, and to tell them exactly what they want to hear.