When does a film cross the line from bad to campy bad? Perhaps it helps if Todd Graff, who directed 2003's silly and perceptive "Camp," is at the helm. Long before "Glee" conscripted the masses into semi-willing foot soldiers for acting out life and love through song and dance, Graff was entertaining musical theater's true believers, an admittedly small but stalwart band.
"Camp" was a thoroughly silly and perceptive little film whose success had as much to do with its smallness (it was probably made for less than the cost of building Dolly Parton's big-screen hair) and dishy subject matter (Broadway-hopeful kids scheme away at musical-theater summer camp). It's a blast.
Which brings us to "Joyful Noise," Graff's third directorial effort. (He also brought us "Bandslam," another let's-put-on-a-show-pic). His newest film is a big, glossy affair with above-the-marquee names (Queen Latifah and Parton), a high-concept storyline (scrappy Southern church choir aims for the national championships) and a Hollywood-sized budget of which most indie filmmakers could only dream (ensuring lots of razzle-dazzle musical numbers).
It's a mess.
Poorly written, sloppily edited and so determinedly clichéd that I'm surprised it didn't include a singing dog, it's decidedly out of tune if you're looking for a well-constructed film.
But then there's that camp thing. Graff smears an over-the-top theatricality on "Joyful Noise." It's so corny that it turns out to be, well, halfway silly fun. I'm not defending the film's quality, but I walked out afterward with far more of a bounce to my step than I would have expected.
Graff, who wrote the script, introduces us to the Divinity Church Choir in tiny Pacashau, Ga., which is always coming in second to other hipper ensembles in choir competitions. As the film opens, the director, Kris Kristofferson, keels over with a heart attack. The dour pastor of the church (Courtney B. Vance), appoints the stalwart Vi Rose Hill (Latifah) as the new director, even though the sassy and wealthy G.G. Sparrow (Parton), whose support of the church financially keeps it going, wants the job.
Part of the film's premise, then, is scrappy sitcom banter between its two stars. Complicating matters is Olivia (an appealing Keke Palmer), Vi Rose's 16-year-old daughter, who chafes under her mother's strict hand and immediately falls for the handsome bad boy Randy (Jeremy Jordan, also with a strong performance), G.G.'s grandson.
There are many themes stuffed into the storyline as the choir builds up steam for the national championships. These include riffs on autism, the decline of mainstreet America and the clash between old and new music, along with various comic subplots among the supporting characters (including a traumatized woman whose lovemaking partner dies). Graff is pretty much terrible at drawing these plot threads together smoothly. There's even a chunk of storyline that seems to have been lost on the editing room floor late in the film regarding Olivia and Randy's evolving relationship.
But then there are the musical numbers.
Just when you think the whole thing is going to fall apart, Graff comes along and stages a beautifully tender scene -- such as when Parton's character ends up dancing with someone from the past. The gospel competition numbers, too, add flair and emotion. When you find yourself singing along to the big finale, an audacious performance of Sly Stone's "I Want to Take You Higher," that's when you know you've entered the joyful realm of campy bad.
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