By Steve Beard
January 8 was National Choir Appreciation Sunday. Although I’ve never sung in a choir, I fear that date may have come and gone without the proper over-the-top hoopla.
Wearing robes has never really been my style, but it certainly hasn’t hindered others from joining the choir. According to ChorusAmerica.org, there are more than 32.5 million choir members in churches across America. I find it amazing that even with the widely heralded practice of praise bands replacing choirs, there are still more than 32 million churchgoers rockin’ the robes! Furthermore, these choir members volunteer 8.5 billion hours every year.
Somebody needs to say amen!
One week after National Choir Appreciation Sunday, Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah released the film Joyful Noise, a funny and uplifting nod to all of the drama, hanky panky, politics, and ridiculous idiosyncrasies that are often part of church life—particularly up in the choir loft.
I’m ashamed to admit it, but I never would have thought to write parts for Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah in the same movie. But I’m glad Todd Graff did. Then again, I never would have guessed that Todd Graff, a Jewish screenwriter and director, would have produced such a high-energy and entertaining film about gospel choir competition. Once again, I’m glad he did.
Gospel choirs are simply an irreplaceable institution in the development and history of all popular music in American culture. Phenomenal vocalists such as Sam Cooke, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, and Aretha Franklin all cut their teeth on hymns and spirituals in church.
“Anybody can tell you that all the great soul singers learned their best licks in the choir loft, that the church is the mother of R&B and the grand-mother of rock & roll,” once said the Rev. Al Green, simply one of the greatest of the soul singers—selling more than 20 million records.
Let’s just get this straight, Parton and Latifah are a marvelous duo—two Oscar nominated women with charisma, talent, and charm enough to light up any screen. Parton plays the role of a free-spirited widow named G.G. Sparrow (fitted choir robe and all), while Latifah plays a far more conservative mother trying to raise two children on her own.
Both women are members of a small choir in economically-depressed Pacashau, Georgia, that is attempting to beat insurmountable odds in order to compete in a national church choir competition. (One of the competing choirs features the out-of-this-world Kirk Franklin—most definitely a film highlight.)
Like a perfect storm, the church is surrounded by unexpected and catastrophic waves from all directions. Throw in a little dash of teenage romance, Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton’s hilarious bickering, and a fantastic soundtrack of great gospel music, and you’ve got two hours of Joyful Noise.
“We were inspired,” Dolly Parton told me. “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. And working in this film, there were always these wonderful little things that were happening—little coincidences that I called ‘God winks’ or ‘God smiles,’ just to let you know that God’s hand was in it. I felt inspired to be able to work around so many good hearted people, so many people who were sincere in their faith.”
Despite the fact that this is a mainstream film from a mainstream studio for a mainstream audience, it was refreshing to see that references to Jesus were not sanitized from the script in an awkward nod to political correctness or what passes as anemic pluralism. Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah even teamed up to lobby the director to scratch a few zesty expletives from the film.
“I appreciated being a part of a film where the word God was used—where you could say Jesus,” Queen Latifah told me. “I’ve been doing this for a while now, and so often I see the name Jesus or the word God omitted or changed. Everyone is trying to placate to every religion or non-religious person—Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Atheist—it has always gotta be some kind of broad brush painting for everyone.”
Of course, Jesus should not be a stranger. This is, after all, a film about a choir at a Christian church in Georgia. Nevertheless, it was remarkable to have one of the high points of the film be a meditative and soulful rendition of Queen Latifah singing “Fix Me Jesus” in an empty sanctuary.
When speaking about the authenticity of the scene, she responded, “You have no idea. It was authentic. I definitely had my own issues that I was dealing with, my own challenges—my mom was hospitalized during the filming of this movie (she is doing much better now),” she continued. “I was the perfect conduit for what my character was going through. I was talking to God myself, ‘Fix me, Jesus!’ I don’t often get an opportunity to sing songs like that.”
When Queen Latifah was growing up, church was not optional—and neither was vacation Bible school. Her aunt even directed a mass choir in Virginia. “Gospel has been in me since I was a kid,” she said.
“It was just refreshing to do a movie that is based in Christianity for a change,” Latifah continued. “To really be able to enjoy that—to enjoy the music, to the enjoy the faith.” She even observed that although she was going through difficult struggles during the time of the filming, she found it to be a blessing to be on the set and find strength in her role and attempt to “hear God talk to me doing a movie. Nothing against anyone else’s beliefs, but it was refreshing and inspiring to me to be able to do that.”
She is rightly convinced that no matter a person’s creed or national background or circumstance, the message and the music of the film is inspirational.
Both Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton grew up with a steady diet of church and faith and music, as did their powerful young co-star Keke Palmer. You could tell that they genuinely enjoyed having their careers dovetail with being able to express their faith through an entertaining and uplifting film.
“We’re all sinners, but that is why we have this religion to forgive us and help us,” Parton observed. “We try to be perfect, we strive to do better, but it is an inspiration to know that we were doing something that would uplift people during this hard time in the economy. That’s what this story was all about. For me personally, it just made me feel good to be involved in something great and mighty and something bigger than us.”
Ironically, director and screenwriter Todd Graff didn’t grow up around high-powered gospel music. Instead, he grew up listening to his mother lead a Jewish ladies choir in his home two days a week. When I asked him how he would describe their style of music and singing, he deadpanned, “Lots of minor chords.” Graff said 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.”
Although Dolly Parton had not been in a movie in 20 years, Graff wrote the part of the GG Sparrow just for her. When I asked her about the first time she read the script, she responded: “I could not let anyone else play that character….It was me. I had to do it. It was perfect for me. I have been looking for something great. I have been praying for something great.”
“How else would you explain it? This Jewish guy writing a film about Jesus,” Parton observed humorously. Her bright smile lights up the room. “God was good to me…He’s worked through the Jews before.”
Like everything else that radiates about Dolly Parton, her laughter is as infectious as her faith.
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News Magazine.