Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah make moral missteps in this musical. But when they sing, they do indeed make a joyful noise.
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.
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SOURCE: Plugged In – Paul Asay