As the Blues Brothers once learned, the Lord works in mysterious ways. But who would have thought that those mysterious ways involved sassy, singing ladies of a Southern black choir? Probably Jake, actually. He had some foresight.
In today’s Smack, we hear the two veteran voices of Queen Latifah and Whoopi Goldberg, along with their choirs, going toe to toe… or rather, chord to chord. We have the new, gospel musical, Joyful Noise, taking on everyone’s favorite singing nun (suck it, Sound of Music!) in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.
Each choir-mistress is tasked with saving her choir/school from being shut down by some part of the church. But which one has what it takes to hit the right notes while soothing the savage beast that is Movie Smackdown? Let’s find out.
When the beloved director of the Divinity Church Choir tragically passes away during a performance, the church council appoints Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah) as his replacement, much to the dismay of Dolly Parton’s G.G. Sparrow, who disapproves of the traditional style that Vi Rose stubbornly tries to force on the choir. Their rivalry extends outside the church doors when Vi Rose’s daughter Olivia (Keke Palmer) falls for G.G.’s grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordan). With everyone pushing for change, and the pastor needing a win in the National Joyful Noise Competition in order for the choir to keep competing, Vi Rose and G.G. are at each other’s throats.
Joyful Noise has a run time of 117 minutes, but with so many things going on, it felt more like Lord of the Rings. There were scenes that seemed to be there just to take up time between musical numbers. For instance, one small storyline had two members of the choir randomly getting together, with the woman finding the man dead in her bed the next morning. Every time one of the three or four scenes dedicated to this particular distraction came up, it took me right out of the movie. And that’s only one superfluous story out of maybe three. Writer/director Todd Graff should have cut the film down to about 90 minutes and made the story tighter.
Writer/director Todd Graff’s constantly shifting cinematic style also took me out of the movie. The dream sequences and flashbacks were particularly jarring in their visual presentation. This wasn’t exactly an indie flick where that thing happens and it’s looked at as experimental and artsy. Here it was more like, “Whoa, this would be a cool effect to have in this scene for some reason!” Not the best choice by the director here.
None of this is to discount the good things in the film, and most of those revolved around the music. Each and every singer in the movie is extremely talented. Their vocal performances were spot on and made for some very entertaining musical numbers.
Following the events of the first Sister Act, Deloris Van Cartier, played by Whoopi Goldberg, is back in Las Vegas headlining her own show. After a performance one night, Sisters Mary Patrick (Kathy Najimy), Mary Lazarus (Mary Wickes) and Mary Robert (Wendy Makkena) pay her a visit and ask her to accompany them to Deloris’ hometown of San Francisco to become a teacher at her old school in an attempt to prevent it from closing down. After some convincing, Deloris gets back in the habit and dons her Sister Mary Clarence persona to repay the nuns who had helped her in her time of need. Assuming the role of the music teacher, Whoopi is tasked with taking her rebellious music class and turning it into a tight unit, hoping an award-winning choir will be enough to keep the school open.
While not as successful as the first Sister Act, one could make the argument that Sister Act 2 is a more enjoyable cinematic experience. It’s one of those movies that comes on television periodically and grabs your attention. The story may not be as compelling as the original, but the characters are arguably more likeable and the musical performances are more fun. The film helped launch the careers of Lauryn Hill and Jennifer Love Hewitt in music and movies, respectively.
Each movie has its fair share of corn. For a while, every other thing out of Queen Latifah or Dolly Parton’s mouth in Joyful Noise seems like some sort of sassy Southern saying. In Sister Act 2, the corn comes from the hip-hop references, the yo’ Mama jokes and the nuns in general. The cheese factor of Sister Act 2 was more chuckle-inducing, rather than the disappointed-head-shaking of Joyful Noise.
Both movies also have their share of heavy hitters. Let’s take a look at the front line first: Whoopi vs. the Queen. Whoopi’s Sister Mary Clarence is a very likeable character. Even though she’s hesitant at first to help out, she ends up doing the right thing in the end and succeeds in achieving her goal. Queen Latifah’s Vi Rose, on the other hand, grows increasingly unlikable as the movie progresses. The trailer for Joyful Noise makes it seem like Vi Rose’s little rivalry with G.G. is cute and comical, but it’s not. Vi Rose is extremely set in her traditional ways, even when the entire choir is trying to tell her it’s time for a change. Some scenes involving Vi Rose and her decisions are incredibly hard to comprehend, especially ones later in the film where she’s arguing with her daughter. In the end, of course Vi Rose comes around, but there’s little to explain her sudden change of heart. Frankly, I’m surprised the choir put up with Vi Rose for that long. Most people would have dethroned and beheaded her before then.
Moving on to the next level of leading ladies, we have Lauryn Hill vs. Dolly Parton. Both are better known for their singing careers, but their acting isn’t bad at all. Each actress is believable in her role, and when it’s time to sing, these ladies are spot on. Dancing, however, is another story. In Parton’s case, it’s almost as if she’s being doubled by a life-sized Barbie doll. Stiff and offbeat at times, Dolly’s dancing makes for a good laugh at least.
Both these films would be totally forgettable if not for the music. While both use traditional hymns combined with more modern and secular hits, Sister Act uses more R&B and hip-hop songs by the likes of Marvin Gaye and Naughty by Nature, whereas Joyful Noise utilizes pop selections from, among others, Michael Jackson, Chris Brown and Sly and the Family Stone. All around a great selection of music from both sides, but Sister Act’s medley of songs triumphs in the end, relying more on charm than by-the-numbers corn.
Pro-wrestling has a term for a match where one competitor is completely dominated by another. It’s called a “squash match,” and it’s exactly what we have in this Smack.
Joyful Noise was advertised as a light-hearted musical comedy about two church ladies who want to run the choir, and that’s really not what we get. Instead, it’s a campy film filled with a confusing love story, drawn-out, awkward moments between a mother and her daughter, and jokes at the expense of death. At the very least, I was expecting a somewhat enjoyable popcorn flick where music saves the day. Next time I want that, I’ll play it safe and go for our hands-down winner, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.