It’s easy to roll your eyes at ‘Joyful Noise,’ a broad-stroke dramedy about a small-town Gospel choir struggling for greatness. Easy, that is, until the song ‘Man In The Mirror’ kicks in.
It’s only a few minutes into the movie, as the choir at Divinity Church in impoverished Pacashau, Ga., is still reeling from the death of its longtime director (a briefly glimpsed Kris Kristofferson). The appointment of his longtime second-in-command, a mother of two played by Queen Latifah, over his widow (Dolly Parton) has thrown the choir’s future into further disarray. But the doubts and the strife melt away as Latifah’s screen daughter Keke Palmer steps to the fore, belting out Michael Jackson’s anthem with the force of a thousand action-movie explosions. It’s a song for troubled times, and troubled people, a reminder that the responsibility, and the power, to transform the world rests with every individual.
“Praise music, no matter what denomination, it has a thing about it,” said Latifah (née Dana Owens), who as a child spent summers singing in a Mass Choir directed by her aunt in Virginia. “The only time I can say I almost caught the Holy Ghost was in choir rehearsal with my aunt.”
“I was only 12 years old, and I just felt this feeling come over me. I almost started losing it, and then it scared me, and I pulled back. It’s something about that music. It’s not just a song. It happens to you,” she said in an interview at the Loews Regency Hotel. “Even if you’re not a Christian, you listen to Gospel, and it gets into your soul.”
The story of ‘Joyful Noise,’ which was written and directed by Todd Graff, is practically boilerplate: rural underdogs take one last shot at the brass ring, which means transcending their status as regional runners-up and making it to the national Gospel choir championships. Throw in a star-crossed romance between Palmer and Parton’s prodigal grandson (Jeremy Jordan), and the audience could write the rest themselves. But the soundtrack is something else, combining traditional praise songs and redirected pop songs, and those works are informed by the cast and crew’s shared history of worshiping through music.