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Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah, though a generation apart, have carved out undeniably unique roles for themselves in an industry that ordinarily insists on easy categories. Both broke out as iconoclastic musicians in their respective genres of country and rap, and both transitioned into remarkably successful acting careers, each playing roles essentially tailor-made to their personalities, since neither seems capable of actually disappearing into a role. It's been 10 years since Parton appeared in any film, all the while Latifah was appearing in a series of modest hits and getting an Oscar nomination, but they're an oddly apt pairing in Joyful Noise, a corny and broad comedy that still wrings some genuine delight out of its superstar leads and their younger co-stars.
Latifah and Parton play two members of a church choir in rural Georgia who mostly get by tolerating each other, until the choir director (Kris Kristofferson in what amounts to a cameo) suddenly dies, and Latifah's Vi Rose is appointed the new director. Parton's character G.G., as the widow of the late director, expected to get the gig, and tensions heat up between them, though a foodfight is as nasty as things get among these two God-fearing ladies. Meanwhile G.G.'s grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordan) is in town, and wastes no time wooing Vi Rose's sheltered daughter Olivia (Keke Palmer), whom he falls for after seeing her perform "Man in the Mirror" with the choir-- you know, the way all good romances start.
The plot is essentially a lot of threadbare stories strung around each other and leading up to the big final competition, and director Todd Graff frequently cuts between scenes and subplots with no sense of momentum or forward motion. This hurts especially in the second act of the film, as all the characters pause to reflect on their own problems, confront the family members they're feuding with and look to the Lord for help-- only Dolly Parton, bless her, manages to keep her spark there. But Graff also cannily structures the film as a classic Hollywood musical, sprinkling in songs that push the story forward and build character while also providing a Glee-like burst of goofy emotion. Even when the story lags, Graff films the musical numbers with skill and kinetic grace, allowing his talented performers-- including many actual gospel singers-- to take over. It's undeniably bizarre to see Dolly Parton twist the words of Chris Brown's "Forever" to be about God, but fairly incredible as well.
When it's filled with that ebullient spirit, Joyful Noise is an honest delight, as corny and occasionally as preachy as a tent revival, but as open-hearted and dynamic as well. Parton is a marvel to watch even now, a week away from her 66th birthday-- her choir robes pinned in to show off her bust, her hair teased up six inches, her lips enlarged and eyebrows lined black. The best moments of the film seem directly inspired by her straightforward, God-fearing humor, and though a shaggy comeback vehicle for her, it's still wonderful to have her back. Unfortunately Joyful Noise loses track of that energy quite often, particularly in the long melodramatic stretch in the middle but also an attempt at black humor that falls cringingly flat. Parton and Latifah aren't in the movie nearly enough, but their scenes together crackle with sass, and their youngun counterparts make appealing, if deliberately bland, substitutes. Joyful Noise treads entirely expected territory, but often does so with wit and charm, and it ends on a big enough high note that it's easy to forget the bumpier moments that came before it.