Pacashau, Ga., has seen better days. Shops are closing their doors. Folks are showing up in soup lines. The town could use a pick-me-up—a little song in its Southern heart.
Normally, residents would turn to the Pacashau Sacred Divinity Church to hear that song. The church's powerhouse choir is the town's one claim to fame—Pacashau's version of a dynamite high school football team or a hometown kid who made it big. This tight-knit collection of big-lunged harmonizers is among the best in the region. So what if they always fall a little short of qualifying for nationals? So what if they've lost to a Bible-belting choir from Detroit the last four years straight? Winning isn't everything, after all. Certainly not when it comes to church choir competitions. It's really about praising God. It's about fellowship. It's about—
Well, maybe this year it is all about winning.
See, competing in these regional tourneys is putting a financial strain on the tiny church, and the pastor thinks it's about time that the choir sing up or shut up—nationals or bust. Pacashau needs more than a principled also-ran to root for: It needs a winner. "We're counting on you!" someone in the soup line tells a choir member.
No pressure or anything.
And the choir has other challenges too. Bernard Sparrow, its longtime director, is singing in heaven these days, leaving headstrong Vi Rose Hill in charge. It's an off-key decision for Bernard's widow, feisty G.G. Sparrow, who also wanted the post. Doesn't nepotism count for anything anymore?
To make matters worse, G.G.'s prodigal grandson, Randy, has a thing for Vi's sheltered daughter, Olivia. How much drama can one backwater choir endure?
More than this, as it turns out. Much more.
Pacashau Sacred Divinity is full of quirky characters, petty grievances and small-town rivalries that many a church member can relate to. But all the characters here (and some of 'em are quite the characters) are given their full say and due. Joyful Noise doesn't have villains—just flawed folks doing their best.
Sometimes their best is pretty good. Randy—presented as a potential town troublemaker—takes Vi's son, Walter, who suffers from Asperger's syndrome, under his wing and teaches him how to play the piano. He drives Olivia out to an Army base so she can have a surprise talk with her father (a soldier). He even patches things up with an old rival, encouraging him to join the choir as a guitarist. Granted, it's more for the choir's sake than the rival's, but it still takes a big man to overcome personal bias for the good of a community.
G.G. becomes Randy's advocate, encouraging others to take a chance on the kid, despite his reputation. And she encourages him, in turn, to not run away as he's sometimes prone to do, but to stick around and fight for what's important to him.
But the real moral center of the film is Vi Rose, the hard-working choir director/nurse/waitress/virtual single mom. Though she can be overbearing, it's all to protect her children as best she can. And her strength is something inspiring, even beautiful to behold.
Where does Vi's strength come from? Her faith, the film suggests. She's the most overtly spiritual member of the church choir: She leads her family in a breakfast prayer, and when her daughter goes a little too Mariah Carey during rehearsal, Vi puts a stop to it as too self-centered. "I want to hear God through you," she says. A "God bless our home" sign hangs over the family stove.
No surprise then, that when people have serious questions about faith, they turn to Vi. When a choir member tells her that he doesn't want to sing as much anymore because it feels like God's using him for "target practice," Vi reminds him that "God don't miss." She assures him that his faith and desire to sing will return.
And speaking of singing, most of what we hear sung are unambiguous songs of faith. Some of the tunes are old, some are new. The vast majority feature soaring lyrics and beautiful melodies.
Walter blames God for his Asperger's, telling Vi, "If you loved me, you'd hate Him!" Then he adds, "I just wish I could be normal—for you, Mama."
"You don't have to be anything but exactly who you are," Vi tells him. "God don't make no mistakes, Walter, and He ain't about to start with you."
Not all of the film's references to faith are inspirational, though. Some serve as a batting tee for softball jokes. "God gives you girls so your mama can tell you I told you so," G.G. says at one point, for instance. "Is there such a thing as being too good of a Christian?" she postulates at another. "Because that may be my problem." When the choir finds itself going up against another talented group made up of kids, Vi says it's OK to beat 'em: "Didn't Jesus say, 'Suffer the little children?'"
Less lighthearted is the moment when G.G. suggests that sometimes "a small sin is justified for a higher purpose." She also threatens to break with her church—creating her own and installing herself as pastor—if the current pastor refuses to let the choir spice up its routines.
For others, the church itself is seen as a stifling influence. "Do you want to be a church girl for the rest of your life?" Randy asks Olivia, encouraging her to go to a dance club with him. Olivia's told by her mother to not sing as if she's more important than God. And yet, she tells Randy, "Singing is the only time when I feel important."
Additionally, while faith seems to mean something to almost everybody, that faith rarely seems to check bad behavior. And that means Joyful Noise leaves a cacophony of mixed messages.
Two choir members begin to passionately kiss on the church's steps, grasping each other's behinds as they do so. The next scene, we see her in her house fixing breakfast for him. When she goes to wake him up (it's implied that he's naked), she finds that he's dead. His passing becomes a running joke, with his final sexual partner telling her pastor that no one will ever want to be with her again, that they'll "tap it and die." When she asks a friend whether her boyfriend's death was punishment for them sleeping together without getting married, she hears this in response: "If that was the way God operated, most men would be dead by their senior year of college."
Vi Rose is protective of Olivia. We learn that the 16-year-old is not allowed to date, and when she wants to head to school in a top that's ever-so-slightly revealing, she's told to "cover up." Later, however, Olivia does wear a cleavage-revealing dress to woo a boy. (Her mother, at this point, says she hadn't noticed how grown up she had become.) She also kisses Randy passionately a couple of times, hangs out with him without a chaperone and runs off with him for a night (to visit her father, but still). Randy flirts with her, saying that perhaps they could get together and "make some babies that look just like you." She cautions him to not watch her butt as she's walking away: "I'm a good girl," she insists.
Someone marvels at how a man in the choir could get "married three times and still have the same in-laws." Randy teaches Walter a song titled "I'm in Love With a Stripper."
Randy and Walter beat up a bully: Walter tags the other teen in the testicles, and Randy punches him in the face, sending a dribble of blood flying. Vi Rose and G.G. get into their own fight at a diner: G.G. pelts Vi with bread rolls, and Vi gets G.G. in a headlock that G.G. says is "breaking my hair." Randy runs into a tree branch.
Crude or Profane Language
When Olivia shouts an s-word at her mother, Vi sends a string of them back at her to prove a point: "It's lewd and it has no class, but it's not hard," she tells Olivia. The film understands that principle, but doesn't heed its instruction, unleashing not only those s-words but also a half-dozen uses of "a‑‑" and two or three each of "b‑‑ch," "h‑‑‑," "p‑‑‑" and "d‑‑n." Sometimes those words are uttered in church or in front of a pastor for laughs. God's name is misused five or six times too.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
Vi drops a full bed pan at the hospital. G.G. tells Randy to "grow a set." Vi and G.G. often insult each other.
Joyful Noise is indeed full of joyful noise. Dolly Parton (who plays G.G.) wrote many of its tunes, and neither her age nor her plastic-looking face get in the way of her soaring musical ability as she gives traditional gospel tunes a high-octane makeover and secular songs a spiritual twist.
When I'm asked what proof there is in the world for God, I sometimes point to music. Empirically, it doesn't make sense that a series of varied, modulated sounds could move us as they do. There would seem to be no evolutionary reason why we should love it so. Why it should touch our hearts in ways nothing else can. And yet most of us understand that, when words fail us, music speaks to the soul. And it's the music that makes this film sing.
It's when it stops and the characters start talking that Joyful Noise strays and stumbles.
While it can be effectively argued that the faith on display here accurately reflects the familiar flaws of many churchgoers, it's still the right thing for me to do here to point out that it's a little incongruous for a movie so dependent on Gospel music to, at times, disregard the life-changing message therein. God, Jesus and faith get loads of screen time, but all too often the Gospel is found just in the voice, not in the soul.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Queen Latifah as Vi Rose Hill; Dolly Parton as G.G. Sparrow; Keke Palmer as Olivia Hill; Jeremy Jordan as Randy Garrity; Courtney B. Vance as Pastor Dale; Jesse L. Martin as Marcus Hill; Dexter Darden as Walter Hill
Todd Graff ( Bandslam)
January 13, 2012
May 1, 2012