Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth;
sing the glory of his name;
give to him glorious praise.
Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds!
Because of your great power, your enemies cringe before you.
All the earth worships you;
they sing praises to you,
sing praises to your name.”
Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Church folk will be both entertained and dismayed by this tale of a feud between two divas in the integrated choir of a southern church. Lots of good, bouncy gospel music, but little reality, and plenty of evidence that the scriptwriter, who borrowed the title from Psalm 66, forgot that the psalmist invited us to praise the Lord. In this film the choir is the golden calf of the congregation, not the aid to focusing the congregation’s attention on God during worship.
Following the sudden death of longtime choirmaster Bernard Sparrow (Kris Kristofferson) at the interracial Sacred Divinity Choir of Pacashau, Georgia, his widow G.G. (Dolly Parton) becomes disgruntled and eventually leaves the choir because Pastor Dale (Courtney Vance) chooses Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah) instead of herself as the new music director. This leads to all sorts of complications, including a dispute between Vi and her 16 year-old daughter Olivia (Keke Palmer) over newer music versus more traditional gospel hymns. There’s also a romance between Olivia and G.G.’s grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordan), which is complicated by the rivalry between the two mothers.
What the film lacks in reality(no sense of what a congregational worship service is like), it makes up in exuberant music. It was fun to see Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah working together. But the choir competition, while providing some enjoyable moments of great singing from a number of choirs, is too much like writer/director Todd Graff’’s previous musical competition films, Camp and Bandslam.
As stated above, all concerned seem to have forgotten that the choir is the means, not the end, of praising God. The prophet Amos reminds us forcefully that if we place anything else before God, even a highly talented choir, it is an idol, so displeasing to God that our music is distasteful in heaven.
However, the film is a good example of moving beyond racism: even if it seems unrealistic that the church is so integrated, the shots of the congregation show us what the church should look like on a Sunday morning. And I don’t recall any objection on racial grounds to the budding romance between Olivia and Randy. Just a generation ago Hollywood movie-makers feared any screen contact such as kissing between a black actor and a white actress. Their concern wasn’t just centered on how IsouthernI audiences would react, but on how any white audience anywhere would react. We have made some progress worth praising the Lord about.
Note: Discussion questions are available with this review for those subscribing to the Visual Parables journal. The journal also includes many extras–book reviews, the use of films for church seasons, a lectionary related column, and more. Hundreds of old reviews are also available in the subscribers; section. Check out the sample issue.