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(2012) (Queen Latifah, Dolly Parton) (PG-13)

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Drama: Various members of a small-town church must deal with their various issues while hoping to win a national choir competition.
For the folks of the Pacashau Sacred Divinity Church, the choir has always been one of its big draws and sources of inspiration for the economically depressed small town of Pacashau, Georgia. The choir is so good that they annually compete in the national Joyful Noise competition, even if they're routinely beaten by other, better funded choirs.

It's during one of those competitions that the church's choir director, Bernard Sparrow (KRIS KRISTOFFERSON), unexpectedly dies of a heart attack. As a result, Pastor Dale (COURTNEY B. VANCE) and the church panel decide to name nurse Vi Rose Hill (QUEEN LATIFAH) as his replacement. That doesn't sit well with Bernard's rich widow, G.G. Sparrow (DOLLY PARTON), who's the church's biggest contributor and thinks she should have gotten the position despite Vi Rose having already served in the number two spot.

She accepts the position, even if it means added work to her already busy schedule, what with raising her kids, 16-year-old Olivia (KEKE PALMER), who's in the choir, and her brother, Walter (DEXTER DARDEN), who has Asperger's Syndrome, while their father, Marcus (JESSE L. MARTIN), is serving a second tour of duty in the military.

G.G. also has a teenager in her house in the form of grandson Randy Garrity (JEREMY JORDAN) whose own mother kicked him out of the house. Randy is a gifted musician and singer and immediately takes a liking to Olivia, much to the disdain of local teen Manny (PAUL WOOLFOLK) who also has eyes for her. Vi Rose isn't particularly pleased with the budding romance, but appreciates that Randy is trying to help bring Walter out of his shell.

He also tries to infuse some energy into the choir, with Vi Rose reluctantly agreeing to changes things up a bit. From that point on, and as she and G.G. continue with their light antagonism, the choir does what it can to prepare for the next national championship.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
While most everyone realizes that the sermons are one of the most important aspects of going to church, many on the local and national level have come to realize that not everyone is fully engaged by the biblical and/or life lessons delivered every week. As a result, most churches long ago employed the use of music -- usually in the form of choirs -- to liven things up, especially with the call for congregants to stand to sing along with the hymns.

Some, especially in the South, went even further than that, getting their choirs to deliver lively performances and thus keep their churchgoers engaged. Nowadays, it isn't unusual to see full blown bands performing during services, knowing full well that it sometimes takes entertainment to create that sort of engagement.

The filmmakers behind "Joyful Noise" have certainly taken that to heart. While faith-based films are nothing new, many suffer from what I've long complained about in that they only "preach to the choir" and thus miss out on getting their message out to larger and even secular audiences. Their messages might be good, but they lack that something extra to play those already in tune with the sermon.

By including some lively musical numbers in their film, writer/director Todd Graff ("Bandslam," "Camp") obviously hopes to expand their audience. Granted, the music was already a given considering that plot focuses on the choir of a small Georgia church that's good enough to compete every year in a national championship, but not quite special enough to win.

With the unexpected passing of the choir director (Kris Kristofferson), the second-in-command (Queen Latifah) is given the position and takes the advice of some of its members to jazz things up a bit in order to better compete. The director's widow (Dolly Parton) isn't thrilled with her rival getting the job -- their rivalry is never explained and is present mainly to inject light comedy strife into the proceedings -- although she is supportive of her grandson (Jeremy Jordan) trying to shake things up a bit after he moves in with her.

He takes an instant liking to the new director's 16-year-old daughter (Keke Palmer) and tries to help her teenage brother come out of his Asperger's Syndrome induced shell. That creates additional strife, as does an occasionally touched upon subplot about their father being off in the military, as well as the economically depressed town losing its various mom and pop stores. There's even a subplot about one middle-aged choir member -- who has a think for Asian men and vice-versa -- ending up known as something of a black widow after her lovemaking leaves one such man dead (in a weird bit of comedy for a flick like this).

A great deal of all of that has a bit too much of a glossy, sitcom sort of feel to it, although a few moments work better than others, such as when Latifah's mom character lays into Palmer's teenage daughter character for being a brat who doesn't know what she's talking about. But where the film shines best and most often is with its various musical numbers.

A rendition of Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" by Palmer and then a duet with Jordan covering Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed" are knockout performances (especially as backed by the choir), but they did have me a little concerned early on that this was going to end up as choir-tinged version of "Glee" (where popular songs are covered in modified form). In what will ultimately likely be a wise box office move, Graff has also included music of various genres including country (no surprise, considering Parton's presence) and, obviously, gospel, with some toe-tapping numbers at various points in the film.

Aside from the vocal performances (with Palmer and especially Jordan out-delivering their more veteran counterparts), the acting is okay but mostly hampered by the pedestrian script that doesn't offer many surprises. Granted, like a church service, that might just be the point.

Thankfully, the film certainly delivers its pro-faith message (including moments of doubt and confusion) without ever feeling too preachy as oft occurs with many of its non-musical counterparts, and often does so in a lively and fairly entertaining manner. It's just too bad there aren't more musical numbers and less plot (at least of the variety delivered). As it stands (and sings), "Joyful Noise" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed January 10, 2012 / Posted January 13, 2012

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