Hear me out: why Joyful Noise isn’t a bad movie

The latest in our series of writers sticking up for maligned films is a defence of the Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah musical comedy

Joyful Noise lives with an undignified 32% splat on Rotten Tomatoes. This story of a small gospel choir in Georgia did not charm critics, who found it saccharine, too long and baggy, its handling of social issues – recession and Asperger syndrome, mostly – unforgivably clumsy. None of those criticisms are untrue, technically. It is a portrait of small-town America rendered in crayon, its colours crude and simple. But it is so full of both heart and genuinely unhinged decisions that I return to it again and again for a feelgood fix.

In no small part, that’s because of its two leads. If it was director Todd Graff who had the lightbulb notion of casting Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton as rival churchgoers, then he should have won an Oscar for sheer gumption. Parton is GG (though really, she is Parton, down to the rootin’ tootin’ aphorisms and jokes about plastic surgery), married to the choir’s leader Bernard (Kris Kristofferson), who quickly dies at the start of the film, leaving Latifah’s Vi Rose in charge. Vi Rose is a small-c conservative, who wishes to keep the original spirit of the choir alive with traditional arrangements, even though tradition keeps losing them the National Joyful Noise Competition. GG is a rich troublemaker who uses her money to bend the town to her will. When her awful - and I cannot emphasise enough how awful he is – grandson Randy returns to town, he brings the notion of introducing funk and pop songs into the fold, and sets his sights on Vi Rose’s daughter Olivia. Randy is the kind of 35-year-old on-screen teenager who says things like “Make some noise up in this bitch!” in church.

Graff has a bold disregard for traditional storytelling structure. Joyful Noise is like a series of brief TV episodes, loosely stitched together. It drags out certain storylines and wraps others up abruptly, seemingly on a whim. The competitive choir element walked so that Pitch Perfect, which was released a few months later, could run; who knew that Usher’s horny club track Yeah! could be reimagined as a respectful tribute to worshipping God. For a film that is mostly about doing the right thing and praising Jesus, it is oddly unbothered by the parameters of taste. A crucial subplot is about a woman who becomes known as “tap it and die” when a one-night stand with high blood pressure doesn’t make it to morning. Instead of treating this as a bit of gruesome comic relief, it leads, in a roundabout way, to the romantic climax of the whole movie. It is utterly unique.

Really, though, it’s all about the Parton-Latifah double act, which reaches a climax with a fight in a diner about halfway through. Any other film would have put this near the end, but not Joyful Noise. Joyful Noise sets its own rules. GG wants Randy to inject a bit of change into the choir, and essentially blackmails the pastor into allowing it, which nobody bothers denying or passing judgment upon. Vi Rose, though, resigns in protest. If you are not gripped by this point, then the wonky charms of this film may not be for you, but at least stick around for the row, which makes the notorious reading challenge of RuPaul’s Drag Race look tame. It is cutting, it is vicious. “I am who I am,” says GG. “Maybe you were five procedures ago,” says Vi Rose. They trade sharp barbs under a hail of stale bread rolls, and then Vi Rose is fired from the job she desperately needs to support her family. No matter! The plot blithely moves on to more singing.

The ghost of Kristofferson’s character waltzes Parton around a balcony by moonlight while she duets with Randy on this earthly plane. An argument about snoring between Vi Rose and her daughter turns into a barnstorming speech about working-class sacrifice and features the unforgettable line: “You treat my snoring like it is a Marvin Gaye love song.” When the choir comes up against a team of schoolkids, they briefly worry about it being an unfair fight, and then decide to annihilate them, because they’re young and “they’ll get over it”.

I can’t quite understand why critics found this film sickly-sweet. Underneath the surface, it is ruthless, but it is cheerful and triumphant, too, and its many eccentricities are winning. There is no denying that Joyful Noise is a mess, but it is a joyful mess, and I love it.

  • Joyful Noise is available on HBO Max in the US and to rent digitally in the UK

Contributor

Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

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