dolly & queen *Sparks may fly between Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton when they play adversaries with conflicting perspectives in their new movie, Joyful Noise, opening this weekend in theaters throughout North America, but in a recent New York City interview for the film, it was obvious the two entertainment icons could not have been happier about teaming up on the big screen. “Dolly and I had a lot of conversations before the film started,” says Latifah, who also serves as one of the films executive producers. “We felt that on top of making a good movie, and some good songs, we could actually uplift folks. ‘Joyful Noise’ is basically a movie about people making it through challenges, pulling together to accomplish a goal and reclaim their spirits along the way. That’s what a lot of people need today, hope.”

“Doing a movie like this was such a blessing for me because it felt like I was doing something good for God…something good for people, and something good for me,” says Parton, who also penned several songs for the movie. “These days everybody is so depressed. People are thinking the world is going to end. Nobody’s got any money. ..Nobody knows when the world is going to end, but even if it were going to end tomorrow, we need to be doing our very best today.”

Writer-Director Todd Graff sets his movie in the fictional small town of Pacashau, Georgia during hard times. The community is counting on the Divinity Church Choir to lift their spirits by winning the National Joyful Noise competition; but the conflict between the choir’s two leading ladies, newly appointed choir director Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah) and feisty church benefactor G.G. Sparrow (Dolly Parton) threatens to dismantle the whole thing.  To further complicate matters, two rebellious teens are thrown into the mix: “Randy” (Jeremy Jordan) –

G.G.’s rebellious grandson, who has an ear for music, and an eye for Olivia (Keke Palmer), Vi Rose’s daughter.

dolly partonA former theatre actor and relatively new film director, Graff drew on childhood memories to develop this tale about two strong-minded, opposite women in a small town Southern gospel choir. He recalled ladies coming over every Tuesday and Thursday night to sing while his mom conducted.

When asked if his background as an actor and writer made his job as director of this film any easier Graff admits, “The best thing for me is that it lowers the panic level significantly.” In working with the actors, he was able to empathize on a deeper level; and hearing the words in his script being spoken enabled him to revise or fix lines that didn’t convey well, almost effortlessly.  “You can actually get the work done without the noise of fear in your head,” he adds.

Writing the character of “G. G. Sparrow with Dolly Parton in mind, he still found it hard to believe when she accepted. “Everything should be so easy,” Graff says of getting Dolly Parton, who hadn’t done a movie in 20 years, to accept the role. “It was incredible. I had no reason to believe that she would make this movie…We got on a plane. We went to Nashville. We sat there waiting for her in this room…and you hear her before you see her. And you smell her before you see her. She wears all of this perfume and these giant heels. It’s nine o’clock in the morning. She’s got a face-full of makeup. She’s got her wig like she’s worked an hour-and-a-half on it. She is Dolly Parton, and you hear her singing from down the hall as you hear her approaching in her heels…I thought, ‘it just doesn’t get better than this’. Even if she doesn’t do the movie, you’ve got the anecdote of all time.

Graff says Parton had never seen any of his movies, and just took the script at face value. No ground rules or diva plays. She just wanted to be sure they were all on the same page about the kind of movie they were going to make. Within an hour, Graff says, they were best buds; with Parton even baking fudge for the director on the set. I would think to myself, ‘She had a 7AM call, when did she have time to bake cookies?’”

Joyful Noise may be a feel-good film, but it also engages some very serious issues. Relationships for one, such as the often strained mother-teenage daughter dynamic; and  the additional challenges faced by a parent raising a child with special needs. The writer also chose to show the perspective of being a teen with special needs; someone with the knowledge that they are different and the frustrations that surround that difference. And then there are the strains on the husband-wife relationship; especially when a parent is absent from the home, yet still a strong part of the family. Graff did a good job tackling these issues, and balanced the delicate nature of these issues without compromising a believable outcome.

There is so much solid acting from this ensemble, it makes some of the more cheeky moments of the film easier to forgive. Audiences will love the music and the multi-leveled characters. Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton shine for sure in their respective roles; with Latifah more than aptly delivering the depth of a mother working to keep it all together. Two especially outstanding moments come during her honest, soul-stirring performance of “Fix Me Jesus” and her scene-stealing monologue while reprimanding her daughter at the elevator. Graff says Latifah’s “big scene” – the one just mentioned, was not originally in the script. “This is Queen Latifah, and she doesn’t have a big scene,” he realized. Without saying a word to anyone he went into overdrive to create the eight-minute scene. “I would have been in trouble if she did not like it,” he laughs.

Keke Palmer and Jeremy Jordan are pure gold. As two talented teens dealing with “sparks” of their own, they add to the friction between G.G. and Vi Rose. Palmer, who audiences will remember from the acclaimed film, Akeelah and the Bee”, shows she is all grown up and able to handle her first onscreen kiss. A talented singer, Palmer delivers a strong performance as the 16-year-old choir member, trying to break free from her mother’s overbearing, traditional ways, by leading a choir mutiny. “Pretty much anything that isn’t straight out of the Bible, Vi Rose is against,” she says. “Olivia is trying to sort out all of these feelings, about her mom, herself, Randy, and the fact that her dad’s not around. So she rebels.” Palmer worked with Latifah in one of her very first film roles, and was thrilled to be working with her again. “Dana is so cool and she and Dolly are fun to watch with all that sass and comedy when they go at each other.”

“I’ve known Keke since she was little,” says Latifah, “so to see her all grown up and doing her thing is pretty awesome. Her energy and talent are just unbelievable.”

Jordan, who performs an amazing rendition of the Paul McCartney song, “Maybe I’m Amazed”, and even sings a duet with Dolly Parton, is new to film. The director admits he found him “by happy accident” while attending the Broadway production of “Rock of Ages”, and knew he was right for the part of G.G.’s free-spirited prodigal grandson. He shows a genuine sensitivity in his moments with Walter (played beautifully by Dexter Darden); the special needs son of Vi Rose who suffers from aspergers syndrome. Audiences beware: you may not be able to get the song, Walk Away Renee, made popular by The Left Banke in 1966, out of your head for a few days!

Graff says working with Latifah and Parton; as well as both of the younger actors presented their own unique challenges.

“Not only were they two different groups of people, but they were four totally different types of actor. Jeremy is a trained theatre actor, so he comes from a place where it is about the text. So you sit and talk with him…It’s a specific way of working with that kind of an actor. Keke comes from Nickelodeon, Disney channel; where I would have to tell her ‘stop facing front all the time. There are not three cameras here, there is one camera and it will cover you….She was great and she was very direct able, but it was a different way of having to work…And then you have Dolly who…at this point she’s a brand name…She is all heart…very smart, an incredible businesswoman. But as an actor, her head doesn’t enter into it. If it feels right then it’s ok. She just wants you to tell her what to do, she wants to digest it and filter it through that heart and put it out there.”

“Like Dolly,” Graff continues, “Queen Latifah’s background is music. And she’s also an incredibly smart lady; but she’s completely intuitive. [It has to] make sense to her, almost street sense of what feels right and what doesn’t. One of the traits of a director is just to be a good lawyer…basically, manipulate you into doing the thing I want you to do, so that we can make this moment work…You can’t out-lawyer, Dana [Latifah’s given name]. She just doesn’t care how good you are at saying the thing you want to say. If it doesn’t feel right to her; if it doesn’t pass her ‘BS’ detector. It ain’t gonna happen. I didn’t have to rewrite a single line of dialogue for anybody, except Dana. And it’s not because she thinks it was wrong, the moment was wrong or doesn’t make sense…She would say, ‘that’s not how this woman would say that’. And if I went down the road of ‘I actually wrote this woman and created her so of the two of us, I actually know this woman better’ – she didn’t care. She would say, ‘You wrote her, that’s fine [but] I have to play her. I have to do this now. I don’t care if it’s your mother. Now it’s my aunt.”

Graff said through it all, it was stimulating trying to figure out the best way to work with the actors; and in his resolution to make a movie without trying to imply miracles he says, “It was important to me that the characters be flawed…In the end everybody is still broke. This is not a movie about miracles, it’s a movie about people coming together.”

Rounding out the excellent casting of ‘Joyful Noise’ is Kris Kristofferson as the gone-too-soon husband of G.G. Sparrow; Jesse L. Martin as the absent husband of Vi Rose Hill; and Courtney B. Vance as the church pastor. But it is the music that may ultimately sneak up and steal the show. This is a film about gospel music competitions; and gospel great Kirk Franklin makes his mark in the film performing “In Love” a song he wrote and performs with a choir that turns out to be Pacashau’s arch-rival.

Preparing for the film, Graff attended real gospel competitions, revealing, “They have become enormous over the past decade or so. I went to one in Newark, New Jersey that was sold out – 18,000 seats. They sell out the Staples Center…These things are a huge deal.”

Five-time Grammy award winner Mervyn Warren is the film’s composer and music producer. A former member of the group Take 6, he has known Todd Graff for over a decade. He is also seen in the film as the choir’s pianist. Warren began writing and arranging the music for the film just after Graff finished an early version of the script. ‘Joyful Noise’ fuses the sounds of gospel, pop, country, rock and R&B from the music of Michael Jackson, Sly & The Family Stone, Usher, Paul McCartney, Chris Brown and Stevie Wonder and performed by the Pacashau choir cast. And the incredible competition medley shows several of the songs making seamless transitions into the next- beautifully demonstrating how popular music lends itself to the gospel genre. No change in the song, just the intent.

Alcon Entertainment’s ‘Joyful Noise’ distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures opens nationwide today, January 13, 2012.

DeBorah B. Pryor began her career in journalism in New York City more than 30 years ago. She has been a contributing writer for EURweb since 2003. She is an adjunct instructor at UCLA Extension and Glendale Community College teaching her popular and unique original workshop “Public Speaking for the Private Person” to people challenged by communicating effectively in their personal and professional lives. Visit her website at http://www.dpryorpresents.com for more information.