Film Review: Joyful Noise

For all of its commercial clichés, this joyously populated new gospel musical lives up to its title: It’s rousing fun and, in the person of Jeremy Jordan, a true star is born.

Few actors enjoy the instant command of the screen and audience sympathy as does Queen Latifah, whose magnanimously warm presence can even momentarily redeem the slickest tripe Hollywood devises. These gifts are on blazing evidence in Joyful Noise, which gives the music star her best role in a while.

As Vi Rose Hill, choral director of a struggling little church in Pacashau, Georgia, Latifah plays the overworked single mother of two teenagers, Olivia (Keke Palmer) and Walter (Dexter Darden), who has Asperger syndrome, with an estranged husband (Jesse L. Martin) in the Army overseas. Uptight and traditional, she continually butts heads with flamboyant, life-loving G.G. Sparrow (Dolly Parton), the rich widow of her choral predecessor (Kris Kristofferson), lately deceased.

Vi Rose wants to stick to traditional gospel hymns and arrangements, which doesn’t bode well for the choir’s chances in a flash-driven, upcoming national competition. G.G.’s rebelliously talented grandson, Randy (Jeremy Jordan), suddenly hits town and, Footloose-style, shakes everything up, from the church’s music department to Olivia’s dewy young heartstrings, none of which sits at all well with the redoubtable Vi Rose.

Writer-director Todd Graff, who also did the affecting Camp, has a deep-grained love of music and performance, and swell taste to boot, which all go a long way to counteracting the more predictable, superficial aspects of the storyline. Yes, the characters are sitcom-y clichés, but Graff has innate affection for them all and manages to give them enough interesting emotional/dramatic shadings and surprising visual fillips to cut through the studio gloss. There’s a lovely bonding scene between Randy and Walter, in which they sing out their individual frustrations together, that largely works due to the magnificent Georgia rock quarry setting they’re in. All of the singing sequences, in fact, are handsomely handled, each possessing its own excitement, from Olivia’s early church solo, a stirring cover of Michael Jackson’s greatest song, “Man in the Mirror” (which Vi Rose finds too full of “Mariah-Christina” melismatic flourishes), to Vi Rose’s heartfelt “Fix Me, Jesus” to the final, killer-big competition number.

Graff shows a gracious generosity as well to gospel singer Karen Peck, awarding her ample screen time as she belts out The Mighty Clouds of Joy’s “Mighty High,” and damn good it is, too, for a white girl! The incidental music selections are also delightful, like obsessive Walter’s fixation on one-hit wonders, particularly “Walk Away, Renee” and Kajagoogoo’s “Too Shy.”

The always marvelously fecund Parton has also penned a raft of affecting songs for the score, which she sings in her still-lovely, plangent soprano which, mercifully, hasn’t been affected by the excessive cosmetic surgery that has her veering perilously close to Joan Rivers territory. It’s really the elephant in the room, which canny Graff boldly addresses with a few well-placed wisecracks which this eminently good-natured diva, who once possessed a face of such perfect beauty that Boucher or Fragonard would have fought to paint it, charmingly takes in her stride. Darden has an eccentric charm, and Palmer is lovely, tuneful and possesses admirable strength when she stands up to her mother (in a couple of scenes which are Queen Latifah’s strongest emotional onscreen moments yet, and you think how terrific she’d be in The Member of the Wedding).

In addition to all this, the film possesses a secret weapon: Jeremy Jordan, who, like Darren Criss of “Glee,” is a phenomenal triple-threat talent, with the kind of effervescent, true-blood showmanship harking back to James Cagney. These guys just love to perform, and that love gloriously transfers itself to the viewer. Jordan, who was absolutely spectacular—near-legendary, really—in the recent, quite wonderful, undeserved Broadway flop Bonnie and Clyde, grabs the screen with his sexy faun face and ardent, natural acting, humanizing all that rote James Dean anguish. And when, in the final competition, he searingly performs Usher’s “Yeah!”, he lifts the movie straight up into blissfully funky movie-musical heaven.