Sweet as Honey

This squeaky-clean musical may not be high art, but it'll warm your heart and get your feet tapping

In the overripe candy-floss musical Joyful Noise, Kris Kristofferson plays the down-home choral director of the rural Pacashau, Ga., Sacred Divinity Church, who dies during the opening credits, leaving behind a spunky widow named G.G. Sparrow (Dolly Parton), an exuberant choir headed for the church-sponsored Joyful Noise Gospel Competition in Los Angeles, and a big void from which the movie never recovers. But the gravel-voiced Kristofferson does return from the dead long enough to sing a duet with Parton and punch things up considerably. This is the kind of country-flavor banana pudding of a movie where you are grateful for small blessings.

Progressive-thinking G.G. expects to take over where her husband left off, but the job of choir director goes instead to Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah), a stiff, cantankerous, hard-headed stickler for old traditions, old songs and old rules. They hate each other. The rest of this one-hour-and-57-minute gingham bonnet concerns the ways they trade insults and battle for control—of the choir, their families and each other.

Complications ensue when Vi’s daughter Olivia and G.G.’s musical grandson Randy fall in love. Let the one-liners fly. G.G.: “I’d call you stubborn, but that’d be an insult to mules!” When G.G. stands her ground and insists, “I am who I am,” Vi retorts, “Maybe you were—five procedures ago!”

And indeed Parton is beginning to look like the “wood” in “Dollywood.” Shrunken and pulled tight as a rubber band, she’s had so many nips and tucks that when she opens her mouth, the sound seems to come from her belly button. Never mind. Dolly is still Dolly, and even when she’s saddled with a line that makes you gag (“Trying to fool me is like sneaking a sunrise past a rooster!”) her cracker barrel philosophy is nothing less than genuine. Queen Latifah has the more demanding—and rewarding—role. As a tough cookie with a heart of honey, she has never been warmer or more endearing.

The script goes nowhere. Songs are inserted for no other reason than to justify the stars’ presence (and salaries). But what songs they are! With G.G.’s grandson played by the dazzling Jeremy Jordan (show-stopping star of the recent Broadway musical Bonnie and Clyde), you can depend on the choir soaring to glory with more contemporary hip-swinging rock arias and fewer old-fashioned hymns. Which gives the whole cast a chance to swing off the charts with one sensational number after the next.

Writer-director Todd Graff’s efforts to meld various subplots about Vi’s son Walter, challenged by the effects of Asperger’s syndrome, and the romantic hurdles faced by another member of the choir are only bland attempts to stretch the movie to a running time longer than it warrants, and the results seem as predictable as they are protracted. Still, the shortcomings should in no way detract you from a rollicking gospel and hip-hop score performed to the hilt by the stars, the choir, and by Lou Rawls, Boz Scaggs and others too rockin’ to mention. It’s a soundtrack CD auditioning for a movie.

Grousing aside, this is a disarmingly sweet movie, enjoyable to the hilt, with music that really stomps. Don’t expect high art, and you will leave Joyful Noise smiling to the beat.

Joyful Noise (PG-13) ★★★☆☆