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Knight at the Movies: Joyful Noise; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2012-01-11

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Thank God for queer writer-director Todd Graff. With his latest film, a quasi-musical called Joyful Noise, he has brought back to the movies ( after a 20-year absence ) the singular talents of the Backwoods Barbie herself, Dolly Parton. Parton looks increasingly like a visitor from a foreign planet—a place where inhabitants wear pounds of makeup, bouffant wigs and glittery clothes, as well as subsist on a liquid diet abetted by lots of plastic surgery procedures and cheerfully admit that "it takes a lot of money to look this trashy." Yet none of these physical trademarks detracts from Parton's buoyant Southern charm or from her seemingly endless musical gifts.

It's not hard to see why Parton has finally agreed to return to the big screen. Graff's movie, a gospel mash-up of Sister Act and Footloose, is an unabashed cornball confection that is about as modern as a Grandma Moses painting and gives Parton a role that cannily exploits her manufactured persona and exuberant, what-the-hell acting style. Even with a creaky conceit that stretches credibility to the limit, this old-fashioned movie is a crowd-pleaser that really pleases.

Graff's secret weapon is Parton's co-star, the almighty Queen Latifah, whose talents are also pretty spectacular and whose ability to connect with modern audiences anchors the movie in what little reality it maintains. Latifah is nothing if not a level-headed actress. She specializes in characters who inspire trust, and who audiences look at to find their bearings as well as to learn the moral of whatever story she's embellishing with her presence. Here, as Vi Rose Hill, she's a conservative nag who wants to keep to the straight and narrow when she's asked to take over guiding the gospel choir of the little church in Pacashau, Ga., after Parton's husband ( an ossified Kris Kristofferson ) has kicked off.

Although Parton as G.G. Sparrow—the economically depressed hamlet's richest citizen—isn't happy with competitor Vi Rose taking over the choir, for the sake of unity she agrees to the change in leadership. Moreover, Vi Rose is none too happy with the "pop junk" ( like "Man in the Mirror" and "Maybe I'm Amazed" ) the choir has been performing or when her spirited 16-year-old daughter, Olivia ( Keke Palmer ) , puts a little too much emphasis into her solos and makes it apparent that she's fallen for Parton's visiting grandson, Randy ( Broadway performer Jeremy Jordan ) —a troublemaker with a dreamy voice, dreamy dimples and a dreamy smile.

However, the audience knows that Vi Rose doesn't need to worry—not about the burgeoning interracial romance between Olivia and Randy ( it's so chaste that all it seems to be missing are the fidelity rings ) ; not about when and if her kids will learn the truth about her wayward husband; and not if her teenage son with Asperger's syndrome will be okay. ( There's also a hint that he might be gay. )

Mostly, we know that Vi Rose doesn't need to worry about whether she and G.G., with her form-fitting choir robe and matching outfits, are ever going to get along or, heaven forbid, what the outcome of the big gospel competition will be. Naturally, G.G. will eventually confront Vi Rose and the two will have a big ol' public bitchfest where the zingers will fly and, with this being Southern-fried hokum territory, both Latifah and Parton will spout one aphorism after another throughout the entire movie. Taking into account the delicate balancing act of having two big stars to please, Graff gives them both musical and dramatic moments in which to shine.

Graff, who started in the business as an actor before graduating to screenwriting and directing, has gotten less original with each of his three feature films. Camp—his 2003 debut that looked at a bunch of teenage showtune queens at a Broadway musical camp—remains fresh, funny, poignant and observant while 2009's Bandslam, another teenage comedy ( this one focused on high-school rock bands ) was much less diverting. Although it's quite entertaining, Joyful Noise is incredibly formulaic and predictable.

Yet, what all of Graff's movies have in common is not just his talent for assembling expert casts and drawing excellent performances out of them but the forthright love of music in the films. The musical numbers in his movies elevate and energize them, enlarging both his characters and his audiences' identification with same—a rare gift. ( Glee could sure use his way with staging and shooting a song. )

This facility with music is front and center in Joyful Noise. When, at the climax, Parton, Latifah and company let loose with a long melody wrapped around Sly Stone's "I Want To Take You Higher," the audience goes haywire with the exultation of the moment. Suddenly, the mawkishness becomes complete and Graff's movie more than lives up to its title.

Film notes:

—James Franco goes the queer poet route again after portraying gay icon Allen Ginsberg in Howl. This time he writes, directs, produces and stars as Hart Crane, the sailor-chasing modernist poet who committed suicide in 1932 and whose seminal work, The Broken Tower gives Franco's film its title. The movie ( which co-stars Michael Shannon and Franco's brother, Dave ) was shot in black and white, and is available now through Focus World's online digital VOD service ( a DVD release arrives at the end of March ) . http://focusfeatures.com/focusfeatures/film/the_broken_tower

—Integrity Northern Illinois, the Diocese of Chicago's chapter of Integrity USA, presents God and Gays, a film series focusing on "religious communities' discovery of homosexuality and how they respond to it." The series runs Friday, Jan. 13-Friday, Feb. 3. All screenings will take place at the Center on Halsted ( 3656 N. Halsted St. ) beginning at 7:30 p.m. A $5 donation is asked and refreshments, including popcorn, will be provided.

The line-up:

Jan. 13—Incompatible with Christian Teaching, a 45-minute documentary from 2009 centered on The United Methodist Church's struggle to "change institutional orthodoxy."

Jan. 20—Trembling Before G-d, the excellent 2001 documentary that focuses on gay and lesbian Hasidic and Orthodox Jews.

Jan. 27—Anyone and Everyone, a documentary originally broadcast on PBS in 2007 about religious families dealing with their children's queer sexuality.

Feb. 3—Love Free Or Die, a sneak preview of Macky Alston's documentary portrait of Bishop Gene Robinson that is slated for screening at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

Further information is at www.centeronhalsted.org .

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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