Sound the Gong for Joyful Noise
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- 2012 13 Jan
DVD Release Date: May 1, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: January 13, 2012
Rating: PG-13 (for some language including a sexual reference)
Genre: Drama, Comedy, Musical
Run Time: 117 min.
Director: Todd Graff
Actors: Queen Latifah, Dolly Parton, Keke Palmer, Jeremy Jordan, Dexter Darden, Courtney B. Vance, Jesse L. Martin, Angela Grovey, Kris Kristofferson, Kirk Franklin, Francis Jue
Gospel music is about style and content. The style is uplifting. The songs can be slow or uptempo, reflective or boisterous. The lyrical content usually focuses on God, but it’s not unusual to hear “gospel-style” arrangements of songs that lack any theological substance.
Joyful Noise mixes the secular and the sacred in its portrayal of a church choir competing in a national competition, but the Gospel isn’t at the heart of this intermittently entertaining film. Instead, Joyful Noise uses church culture as a backdrop for a story of romantic relationships and professional rivalries. Themes of struggle and perseverance emerge, but the character conflicts in Joyful Noise have a disappointingly generic quality, while the film’s humorous treatment of sexual sin is downright troubling.
The story’s premise is meager: A church choir loses its longtime leader (Kris Kristofferson, Dolphin Tale) and suffers infighting after the church minister (Courtney B. Vance, Extraordinary Measures) appoints Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah, The Dilemma) as the new choir leader, rather than the former leader’s wife, G.G. Sparrow (Dolly Parton). The two women lob weakly scripted verbal shots at one another (“she looked at you like Jesus left a will putting her in charge”) while the choir prepares for an annual competition. They’re perennial losers, due, G.G. believes, to the tired arrangements of traditional numbers preferred by Vi Rose.
Vi Rose’s moody daughter, Olivia (Keke Palmer, Akeelah and the Bee), has struggled to live under her mom’s rules ever since her father (Jesse L. Martin) left the family. She’s at her most confident when she sings in the church choir—especially once G.G.’s wayward grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordan) joins the group. Might his heavenly voice and souped up arrangements of contemporary tunes be just what the group needs to take on its showier rivals at the regional competition?
There’s nothing wrong with the idea of an uplifting story driven by upbeat, inspiring music. But for every mention in Joyful Noise of a character’s dependence on God—and to the movie’s credit, there are a few—there’s another instance or two of a character focusing on himself or herself, without any mention of divine assistance in their effort to be kinder and gentler to one another. Why, for instance, when we first meet Olivia does she lead the choir in a heartfelt rendition of Michael Jackson’s "Man in the Mirror"? That song is fine—a promise to “make a change”—but its focus is inward, where the problem (our heart attitude) resides, rather than on the One outside of ourselves. Only he can accomplish the needed change within.
Other prominently featured songs include the Left Banke’s "Walk Away Renee" and Paul McCartney’s "Maybe I’m Amazed"—not exactly gospel-music staples, nor Gospel-centric in their content. Also, in a moment played as lighthearted, Randy gets Walter (Dexter Darden, Cadillac Records) to come out of his shell by singing a duet with him of a song that has the chorus, “I’m in love with a stripper.”
More troubling is the film’s hopping over the line with joking references to sexual sin. A subplot deals with two adult choir members who complain about their lack of a love life before embracing each other and (off screen) sleeping together. The next morning, the woman finds her lover dead, leading to a recurring joke about her reputation in bed. She ponders whether God might be punishing her for having sex out of wedlock, but the film sidesteps the very idea that God has any concern about sexual purity. Even worse is the script’s effort to paint stereotypes of faithful living as a straitjacket. When Randy can’t get Olivia to dance at a nightclub, he persuades her to loosen up by asking her, “Do you want to be a church girl the rest of your life? There’s so much more to you than that.” Olivia’s mom might be strict, but being a “church girl” is the least of Olivia’s problems.
Writer/director Todd Graff, who wrote Bandslam and the American remake of the Dutch thriller The Vanishing, has fashioned a story with a few laughs but with too many familiar character types and a predictably “inspirational” outcome. He would have been wise to drop the sexual humor and the winking at out-of-wedlock sex—content that will make family audiences uncomfortable.
That makes Joyful Noise a missed opportunity. Despite a decent performance from Queen Latifah—the most sympathetic character in the story, and the one who seems most earnest about her faith—the movie is too often flat, even offensive, when it should have been soaring and uplifting. Had Joyful Noise emphasized the Gospel for its desired sense of inspiration rather than relying on several “gospel”-style arrangements of secular songs for the same effect, it would have tapped emotions that would have made the film more appealing. Christian audiences shouldn’t settle for this.
- Language/Profanity: “My God”; “a-s”; “b-tch”; “hell yeah”; boys sing a song with the chorus, “I’m in love with a stripper”; “s-it”; “stupid”; “grow a set”; “hell”; “rat’s a-s”; multiple uses of “bull-hit”; “da-n skippy”; “screw.”
- Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: None; a nightclub scene with dancing, but no alcohol seen.
- Sex/Nudity: Randy tells Olivia they should “make some babies”; Olivia tells Randy, “Don’t look at my butt,” then shakes her rear end as she walks away; a man and woman kiss and grab each other, and in the next scene, the woman serves the man breakfast in bed; she says she’ll be known as the woman who had sex and made her man die; later she wonders if God was punishing her for having sex out of wedlock; a character replies that if God killed people for that reason, most men would be struck dead while in college; a sexy dance in a nightclub, after Randy asks Olivia, “Do you want to be a church girl the rest of your life? There’s so much more to you than that”; Walter tells Randy his Asperberger’s syndrome doesn’t allow him to know when people are coming on to him; Randy is shown shirtless; kissing.
- Violence/Crime: G.G. pulls a gun from a cabinet and levels it at a man she thinks is an intruder; Randy walks into a tree limb; a woman is surprised to discover the man in her bed has died; boys have a fist fight; G.G. throws a drink in Vi Rose’s face; Vi Rose throws food at G.G., and the two fight.
- Religion/Morals: Several mentions of God, and of being God’s instrument; a funeral scene and a wedding; a preacher says God judges a man on his faith and the contents of his heart; Walter wonders why God made him the way he is, and says he hates God; gospel music is the background for the film’s story, but several of the songs are gospel-style renditions of secular numbers.
- Marriage: G.G. has been married three times; Vi Rose’s husband left her to raise their children on her own.
Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.