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Faith in Gospel | Joyful Noise | By Sam Adams, For The Inquirer

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Faith in gospel

January 01, 2012 | By Sam Adams, For The Inquirer

NEW YORK - It's easy to roll your eyes at Joyful Noise, a broad-stroke dramedy about a small-town gospel choir struggling for greatness. Easy, that is, until the song "Man in the Mirror" kicks in.

It's only a few minutes into the movie, as the choir at Divinity Church in impoverished Pacashau, Ga., is still reeling from the death of its longtime director (a briefly glimpsed Kris Kristofferson). The appointment of his longtime second-in-command, a mother of two played by Queen Latifah, over his widow (Dolly Parton) has thrown the choir's future into further disarray. But the doubts and the strife melt away as Latifah's screen daughter Keke Palmer steps to the fore, belting out Michael Jackson's anthem with the force of a thousand action-movie explosions. It's a song for troubled times, and troubled people, a reminder that the responsibility, and the power, to transform the world rests with every individual.

“Praise music, no matter what denomination, it has a thing about it," said Latifah (née Dana Owens), who as a child spent summers singing in a Mass Choir directed by her aunt in Virginia. "The only time I can say I almost caught the Holy Ghost was in choir rehearsal with my aunt.

"I was only 12 years old, and I just felt this feeling come over me. I almost started losing it, and then it scared me, and I pulled back. It's something about that music. It's not just a song. It happens to you," she said in an interview at the Loews Regency Hotel. "Even if you're not a Christian, you listen to gospel, and it gets into your soul."

The story of Joyful Noise, which was written and directed by Todd Graff, is practically boilerplate: rural underdogs take one last shot at the brass ring, which means transcending their status as regional runners-up and making it to the national gospel choir championships. Throw in a star-crossed romance between Palmer and Parton's prodigal grandson (Jeremy Jordan), and the audience could write the rest themselves. But the soundtrack is something else, combining traditional praise songs and redirected pop songs, and those works are informed by the cast and crew's shared history of worshiping through music.

Director Graff, whose filmography includes the musicals Camp (2003) and Bandslam (2009), plus an uncredited script for Whitney Houston's The Preacher's Wife in 1996, calls music his "family business." His father sang in the choir of Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, from whose repertoire he borrowed "Fix Me Jesus" for a pivotal moment in Joyful Noise.

His mother rehearsed a Jewish Hadassah choir out of their home in Queens. "It was a lot of minor chords, and a lot of geschrei-ing," Graff said when asked whether he'd thought of setting his story in the world of Jewish music instead of gospel. "They sounded better than any Hadassah choir had any reasonable right to sound, but you still don't want to hear two hours of 'Bim bum beri beri bum.' "

Given that this movie's milieu provides the opportunity for appearances by gospel superstars Kirk Franklin and Karen Peck, it's hard to argue with his decision.

Parton, of course, has dealt with religious themes throughout her 44-year career, as befits the granddaughter of a Pentecostal preacher. Growing up in a one-room cabin in rural Tennessee, Parton was raised in a family that was poor in worldly goods, but rich in faith and harmony.

"All my mother's people are very musical," Parton said. "They all play and sing. We sang in church, we sang at funerals, we sang at all the hoedowns and on Saturday night. So music was a big part of our lives, and God was always a big part. We had no money; we had hope. You had to have it to survive."

Not surprising, Parton related to her character in Joyful Noise, a wealthy widow with a giant voice, whose surgical modifications are the subject of numerous barbs.

"Todd said he thought of me the whole time he was writing the character, and I thought, 'Well, you must have been, because I can't imagine how anybody else could play this,' " she said. "Somebody asked me, 'Why did you do this?' I said, 'How could I not?' She's so much of who I really am: my faith, my personality, my wit, my love for people, family, community."

Parton's first screen role in nearly two decades is tailor-made, right down to the character's penchant for gaudy outfits and plunging necklines.

"I'm not the guy who wants to stretch her," Graff admitted. "I wanted Dolly to be Dolly."

If there seems to be little difference between her public persona and the woman who sits for an interview in a Manhattan hotel, it's because she's as likely to be seen out of character as she is without makeup. "She told me, 'If you ring my doorbell at 8 in the morning, this is what you'll see,' " Graff recalled. "I said, 'What if I come at five of 8?' She said, 'I don't answer the door.' "

Joyful Noise is not a movie that tries to get under Parton's heavily lacquered skin. But it's still one that's close to her heart. She wrote three new songs for the soundtrack, including the old-fashioned gospel number "Not Enough Love" and "From Here to the Moon and Back," a postmortem duet with Kristofferson's spirit.

"My music is my doctor, my therapist, my friend," she said. "Anything I have to work out, I can do it with music, writing it, singing it, listening to other things. Faith in music is the voice of the soul.”

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