All hail the Queen. By which, of course, I mean the sovereign named Latifah, the screen powerhouse whose effect on moviegoers is to make them sit taller, breathe more deeply, and open hearts more fully. I am a faithful subject who unapologetically enjoys Queen Latifah's movie vehicles, however shiny or rusty.
Joyful Noise, a Gospel-inflected Glee written and directed by Todd Graff with more affection than art, is in the latter category. His affection carries the day. Not since Dreamgirls have I heard a movie audience burst into spontaneous applause after on-screen musical numbers. It's the sequences between the numbers that are instantly forgettable.
In this film set in Pacashau, Ga., where the only store left on Main Street is a struggling hardware concern, Latifah plays Vi Rose, a choir lady whose chief article of faith is that parishioners don't want to hear your voice, they want to hear God through you. In this, Vi Rose is seriously mistaken, something that GG Sparrow (Dolly Parton), Vi's competitor for the newly vacated job of chorus director, does not fail to remind her. One of Graff's notable achievements is framing Latifah, nearly six feet tall, and Parton, a ringlet short of five feet, in the same shot.
Vi Rose is a true believer in Gospel music and tough-love mothering, much to the annoyance of her teenage daughter, Olivia (lovely Keke Palmer, star of Akeelah and the Bee and television's True Jackson). GG's taste for a mashup of pop and country with her hymns, not to mention her hands-off grandmothering of Randy (Jeremy Jordan), doubly offends Vi Rose. The film's plot hinges on whether Vi Rose's Gospel songs or Randy's pop/Gospel mashups will be sung at the big church choir competition.
Graff (who made the diverting musicals Camp and Bandslam) writes sufficient one-liners to embroider his film's threadbare plot and fill the space between musical numbers. Example: "Your train of thought makes all local stops," says Vi Rose with a sigh to her son, Walter (charismatic Dexter Darden), who has Asperger's syndrome.
Though one wishes Graff's eye were as developed as his keen ear, he elicits rafter-raising musical performances from Latifah, Palmer, and Jordan that are irresistible fun.
A note to Parton fans (and I am one): Her Dollyness visibly has had major work done. She resembles a tube of toothpaste squeezed so vigorously that it looks as if some of her upper torso has been forced up to her lips and cheekbones. Parton's GG jokes about it: "Who cares if I've had a few nips and tucks? God didn't make plastic surgeons so they could starve!" I laughed - and mourned the fact that when she sings in that inimitable mockingbird voice, her face is immobile.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at email@example.com.