Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Jan 15, 2012 3:36 pm 
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Check your hipness at the door for this one

Joyful Noise is another January movie. Again, no awards competition likely, but simple pleasure can be had if we don't demand too much. It's not a down-and-dirty action film this time. There have been some serious misunderstandings, easily resolved if we simply realize this is a musical -- one of the let's-put-on-a-show and underdog-wins-the-competition variety. The underdog is a small town church choir that enters a big sing-out in Los Angeles.

Warning, then: this concerns a gospel competition, but don't expect Mahalia Jackson-style classic gospel music. Like any modern musical, it's a blend of styles, with rock, soul, pop, and gospel adeptly whipped up together to make you tap your toes and put you into an uplifted state of semi-religiosity. There are various cliches that bind the simple stereotyped characters together. None of this is different from what you'll get in any standard musical. Sure, it's silly, corny, and superficial. But if you will take the basic precaution of checking your hipness at the door, it's guaranteed to have you walking out with a big smile on your face. Some of the amalgamated numbers are really good, and there's a competing children's choir featuring a boy performer, Ivan Kelley Jr. , who is the reincarnated blend of young Stevie Wonder and young Michael Jackson. Amazing.

Try not to see Dolly Parton's oft-lifted face (referred to humorously and openly in the dialogue) as a horror but as a work of art, and her insult-fest and food fight in a restaurant with waitress Queen Latifah (who's also a nurse) not as gross indecency but just good old girls having some fun. Dolly's hubby, Kris Kristofferson, is the choir leader, who kicks the bucket during the opening credits, and to Dolly's annoyance, Queen Latifah is put in charge by soft-spoken but authoritarian pastor Courtney B. Vance. One critic dismissed Jeremy Jordan, who plays Dolly's ostensibly bad-boy but actually bland grandson Randy, who comes to town Footloose-style to liven things up, as an "annoying Zac Efron type." Well, if you don't like Zac Efron, you probably shouldn't be watching a Glee-High School Musical -Sister Act amalgam like this in the first place. Jeremy Jordan, who just wowed 'em on Broadway as star of the short-lived Bonnie and Clyde, is an excellent musical comedy singer and actor who bites into his role with enthusiasm and confidence and has prime singing chops. His only flaw is that he's 26 and a little too much older than Olive, Queen Latifah's daughter, played by the beautiful 19-year-old Keke Palmer of Akeelah and the Bee, who's supposed to be 16.

It's been said Joyful Noise is put together with Scotch tape. But again, though this is obviously not a great musical, they're all collections of semi-independent set pieces boult around songs. It's surprising that this story makes as much sense as it does, but it works with standard elements. Basic is the choir's struggle to weld itself into something up-to-date and energetic enough to win. On the surface the action revolves around the cluster of conflicts that hold the choir back: the standoff between Vi Rose (Latifah) and G.G. (Parton); Vi Rose's resistance to let the choir take on new numbers; her objection to Randy's romancing Olive; and the Reverend's attempt to keep Randy out of the choir. It's all resolved at the end. Vi Rose's military husband comes back, Randy and Olive kiss in public. The children's choir blows us away. But Pacashau, Ga.'s Christian remix of a Sly Stone number is so jazzed up it brings down the house. Really, all this is just an excuse for some catchy songs and some tuneful singing, and as the choir gets juiced up by bringing in This movie also is built around a social agenda. It works its mulitculturalism hard, with a very zoftig black singer who's a magnet for Asian men and the interracial romance of Randy and Olive. The movie kind of harps on the poverty, going-out-of-business epidemic and joblessness of Pacashau, Ga., the church town, and highlights the fact that Olive's younger brother Walter (Dexter Darden) has Aspergers and sorely wishes he didn't.

The obviousness of all the issues and conflicts in this movie is so excruciating it's best not even to pay attention to them. Dolly Parton's wise sayings are loopy and off the wall, to go with her looks. But she's a work of kitsch pop art simply waiting for a giant statue by Jeff Koons. Latifah's respect-yo-mamma speech is more serious, but its corn pone level is if anything even higher. But isn't it a little naive to get upset by any of this? Scotch tape or no, there are enough enjoyable moments and rousing tunes in Joyful Noise to make most of its 117 minutes pass quickly, if you don't look for authentic gospel music, subtle character development, or sophisticated thinking in all the wrong places. Maybe this is a dumb movie. But then aren't Oklahoma and South Pacific pretty dumb? Yes, they're way better musicals, and they waste way less time between songs. But hey, it's January.

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