Todd Graff, the writer and director of “Joyful Noise,” has good reason to be joyful. He achieved a coup that has eluded producers and directors for the past two decades— he got Dolly Parton to star in his movie. Graff wrote the screenplay with Dolly in mind for the lead role without initially obtaining her consent to play the part.
“She hasn’t made a movie in 20 years, so what was I thinking? I couldn’t get her out of my head when I was writing the character [G.G, short for Gorgeous Grandma]. I’d never met her, but our producer was able to get the script to her. Twenty minutes into the meeting she said, ‘If you want to have me, I’ll do it!”
It’s interesting that Graff, who is Jewish, wanted to make a movie about Christian gospel choir competitions. His mother was a choirmaster who held weekly practices in their home, but Graff laments that the music was “a lot of ‘Oh, we suffer!’ After an hour of it, you would kill for a G major, any happy chord. You would not want to sit through two hours of my mother’s choir music, but that whole thing of there being power in a group started to resonate with me as thematic fodder for a movie.”
“Joyful Noise” is set in a rural Georgia town that has fallen on hard times. The one source of happiness for the downtrodden residents is the local gospel choir. The group is determined to beat their local adversary and finally win the National Joyful Noise Competition. Unfortunately, the choir director, G.G.’s husband Bernard (Kris Kristofferson), dies of a heart attack and leaves the group without a leader. To G.G.’s dismay, the pastor chooses her rival Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah) to replace Bernard. G.G., backed by Vi Rose’s musically-gifted daughter Olivia (Keke Palmer), wants to shake things up a bit and introduce a modern twist to the group’s selections, but Vi Rose remains staunchly traditional in her approach. The conflict between the two women intensifies when G.G.’s rebellious but talented grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordan) comes to town and joins the choir to impress Olivia.
Keke Palmer and Jeremy Jordan have great chemistry onscreen, so I asked them if they hit it off right away or if there were any awkward moments. Jeremy replied, “I’m nine years older than she is, so she was like my little sister. We laughed all the way through the filming. This is my first big movie and everybody was like, ‘It’s usually not this good. Everybody’s not usually this happy. Don’t get used to it!’”
Keke laughs, “The only awkward moment was the kissing scene. We had a great time. Everyone was like a huge family.” The family aspect was especially important to 18 year-old Keke as her mom was only on location for a short time.
“My mom told me after the film that the reason why she didn’t come was because she wanted me to grow and be my own person. I really missed her. Just to show you how amazing Dolly is, she saw me one morning all glum. She said, ‘You miss your mama? Well come over here and give me a hug. I’m going to have God send your mother’s love through me.’”
I can’t imagine a set could be anything but joyful with Dolly Parton present. Her down-to-earth persona and warm sense of humor put everyone at ease, and her fellow cast members sing her praises. Jeremy Jordan sums it up, “You wouldn’t think that somebody’s heart could be that big.”
It’s obvious that one of the biggest sources of Dolly’s joy is her faith. “I pray every day that God will let me be a blessing and a light in the world and let me do things to uplift people, especially in this day and time. I felt inspired gettin’ to work around so many people who were really sincere in their faith.”
Co-star Queen Latifah agrees. “I appreciated being part of a film where the word ‘God’ was used. It was refreshing to do a movie that’s based in Christianity for a change and to be really able to enjoy that.”
One caution about this film— although it has many Christian elements, there are a few scenes that might cause devout Catholics to cringe. Parents should heed the PG-13 rating as this is definitely not a movie for pre-teens due to mature themes and a sexual encounter between two unmarried minor characters.
“Joyful Noise” opens in theaters on January 13. The film is rated PG-13 for some language, including a sexual reference.