Joyful Noise – BEHIND THE SCENES
Queen Latifah & Dolly Parton Interviews
From Christmas carols to “Amazing Grace” to the perennially popular musical “Godspell,” the idea of a making a joyful noise transcends religion, culture and background.
Writer/director Todd Graff affirms, “Music has always been a common language, and gospel music is no exception. Gospel has evolved from the traditional spirituals to rock, hip-hop and R & B, and that’s reflected in the movie ‘Joyful Noise.'”
Drawing on childhood memories, Graff crafted his tale about two strong-minded, but opposite women in a small town Southern gospel choir who trade high notes and low blows in their heated and humorous quest to win the Joyful Noise national choir competition and bring hope to their struggling town.
Graff states, “I grew up surrounded by music, including a houseful of ladies coming over every Tuesday and Thursday night to sing while my mom conducted. It made an enormous impression on me. Money can be scarce, life can be scary, and bad things happen to people you love, but there’s art and music and faith and family to make us happy in the world–and to try and overcome is always worth the effort.”
Two movie and music icons, Queen Latifah, whose given name is Dana, and Dolly Parton, play the choir’s embattled leading ladies.
Like Graff, Latifah was also influenced by various relatives who directed choirs. Also serving as executive producer, Latifah portrays conservative parent Vi Rose Hill, who wants to avert change at all cost. “Dolly and I had a lot of conversations before the film started,” she says. “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.”
Dolly Parton plays G.G. Sparrow, the feisty church benefactor who wants to bring its choir into the 21st century. “How could I not do it? Not only is the film very music-driven, but it’s fun and reflects strong family values. It’s about real people out there in the real world and I think we all need encouragement with all the chaos right now. Besides, I’m crazy about Dana.”
The producers were instantly drawn to Graff’s vision for a movie that touched on issues being faced by so many people today, in both small towns and big cities. The characters at the center of the story have to persevere, with faith in their community and in their church, all expressed through music and more than a little laughter.
Producer Michael Nathanson attests, “‘Joyful Noise’ is a movie with heart. Music itself is a character in the film, spanning the full spectrum that all ages can enjoy, from Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney songs, to Dolly’s original compositions, including the rousing “Not Enough,” to Queen Latifah’s powerful traditional gospel solo on ‘Fix Me Jesus.'”
Catherine Paura also produced the film with her longtime partner Joseph Farrell, who sadly passed away in December. Paura says, “We fell in love with all the vivid multi-generational characters Todd had laced in so well with the musical component. Then both Dolly’s and Queen Latifah’s names came up and we thought, ‘Oh, wouldn’t we be lucky if’…and boy, were we lucky.”
Alcon Entertainment principals Broderick Johnson and Andrew A. Kosove were also inspired by the film’s themes, which fit perfectly into the slate of films for which Alcon has become known.
Kosove relates, “Occasionally in this business, you are fortunate to have ‘pinch me’ moments and ‘Joyful Noise’ is a pinch me moment. To make a movie with Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton is incredible and the two of them together are as fantastic as one would imagine. They’re great musicians and terrific actresses. Their characters live in a town that has fallen on hard economic times as many towns across our country have, and the citizens are working together to achieve something marvelous under difficult circumstances.”
With music being such a vital element of the project, Grammy Award-winning composer Mervyn Warren was enlisted to not only write original songs and score but also infuse the film with new takes on old classics.
Johnson asserts, “Merv is amazing; he’s a wonderful talent, an original member of the a capella group Take 6, which I loved back in the day. He said to us from the beginning, ‘This is not just a gospel music movie. It’s a music movie with all different types of music that just happen to be sung by a choir.’ He’s done an incredible job with the arrangements. We have an assortment of songs from Chris Brown to Usher, transformed into gospel style, with faith-based lyrics. The music and personal stories going on in ‘Joyful Noise’ feel very relevant to today, as far as what people are going through and where they hope to find inspiration.”
“Joyful Noise” opens on a musical note, as the Pacashau Sacred Divinity Choir delivers their anthem, “Not Enough,” in the local Joyful Noise gospel competition. As the choir sings, featured soloists, Vi Rose Hill, played by Queen Latifah, and G. G. Sparrow, played by Dolly Parton, work the audience of hundreds into a foot-tapping frenzy. But their high spirits belie the economic despair in their modest hometown of Pacashau, Georgia, where store fronts are boarded up and foreclosure signs are abundant.
But when choirmaster Bernard Sparrow, portrayed by Kris Kristofferson, rushes off stage during the final crescendo, happiness turns to heartbreak and soon the choir gathers to pay respects at their beloved leader’s funeral.
Following the service, Pastor Dale, played by Courtney B. Vance, has the delicate task of informing Bernard’s widow, G.G.–who just happens to control the church’s purse strings–that the board has chosen Vi Rose to take over as choir leader. For four years, Pacashau has lost the national competition to its nemesis, Holy Vision Church of Detroit. Pastor Dale lays down the law: this year they have to win or there will be no more funds for the choir.
The real competition, however, is going to be between G.G. and Vi Rose, the latter of whom is trying to step into Bernard’s shoes without G.G. tripping her at every turn. There’s going to be a throw down before it’s all sung and done.
Although Graff based the role of Vi Rose on his mother, he says, “It became clear when I was finished writing the script that the obvious choice to play the part was Queen Latifah.”
Much earlier in his career, Graff had penned a hip-hop film called “Fly by Night,” so he and Latifah also bonded over their similar music taste.
Latifah offers, “It was a breeze working with Todd. His music roots informed the subject matter, and since he’s an actor, as well as a writer and director, he was invested in every element of the film.”
“I know it doesn’t look like it,” Graff teases, “but I’m very grounded in that old-school downtown New York music world that I was part of at the time. Dana and I really hit it off and not only did she understand the character, she loved the fact that it was based on my mom.”
Latifah notes, “Vi Rose is a bit uptight. Her husband is away in the military and she has her hands full. She’s raising two challenging teens, she’s a nurse, now choir director–one of those women who does too much and can try to control everything in order to just keep it all together. But life doesn’t always work that way and sometimes you have to let go and let God. That’s what Vi Rose has to learn; that’s her journey.”
Part of the journey involves facing a force of nature in the irrepressible G. G. Sparrow, “the yin to Vi Rose’s yang,” Paura describes.
It’s obvious from the beginning of the film that G.G. and Vi Rose have a long history that has resulted in a lot of baggage, which keeps the friction going. “They are always at odds,” Parton elaborates. “They just automatically rub each other the wrong way. So Dana and I purposely didn’t hang out together. We’d make snide remarks, saying these awful things to each other around the set, just like Vi and G.G. would. But it was all in fun.”
Latifah adds, “It isn’t G.G.’s cup of tea to be told what to do or to relinquish being the center of attention. Dolly’s fantastic and we had a good time getting creative with our characters clashing.”
Parton was flattered Graff had her in mind when he wrote the script. “Todd told me he didn’t know how he would have done this without me, but I figured they’d just have found some other big-haired gal to do it,” she teases. “I think it was meant to be. A lot of scripts have come across my desk over the years, but ‘Joyful Noise’ is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been a part of.”
Graff admits, “I knew Dolly hadn’t made a film in twenty years, and I had absolutely no reason to think that she was going to start doing movies again.” Nevertheless, he and producer Michael Nathanson flew to Nashville to meet with Parton and plead their case.
“I heard her before I saw her,” Graff recalls, “because she wears these gigantic spike heels and she clatters down the hallway, singing all the time. She walks in dressed like she’s about to go on stage. I said, ‘You really don’t disappoint, do you?’ And she said, ‘If you ring my doorbell at eight o’clock in the morning, this is what I look like.’ So I asked, ‘What if I ring your doorbell at five minutes to eight?’ She answered, ‘I don’t open the door,'” he laughs.
Parton has a lot in common with G.G., which stands for Gorgeous Grandma as emblazoned on G.G.’s license plate. She observes, “It really is the perfect part for me. She likes the hair and nails and clothes and she’s had a few procedures done. She comes right out with whatever she thinks, and I’m like that. I was real comfortable with it.”
Losing her husband and then finding out from Paster Dale that she’s lost the choirmaster position to Vi Rose Hill, of all people, is a double blow.
Cast as the dour preacher, Courtney B. Vance says, “The fabric of family stretches and bends, but we have to do everything that we can to make sure it doesn’t break. Pastor Dale’s church family has fallen on hard times and is doing its very best to keep the strands intact. G.G. is really the financial backbone of the church, she contributes heavily to our bottom line, so the last thing they want to do is upset her. But trying to get G.G. to work together with Vi Rose is tricky, even for him.”
But the family fabric is stretching beyond repair inside as well as outside the sanctuary. A choir mutiny is brewing, led by none other than Vi Rose’s 16-year-old daughter, Olivia, who is trying to come out from under her mother’s shadow, and thumb, and G.G.’s free-spirited “prodigal” grandson, Randy, whose motives for coming to church are more about winning over Olivia than winning the Joyful Noise competition.
Rising young music artist and actress Keke Palmer plays Olivia. Palmer remarks, “Pretty much anything that isn’t straight out of the Bible, Vi Rose is against. Olivia’s trying to sort out all these feelings, about her mom, herself, Randy, and the fact that her dad’s not around. So she rebels.”
“Struggling to become your own person is something most teens will relate to,” notes Johnson.
Having collaborated previously with Latifah, Palmer 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,” Latifah acknowledges, “so to see her all grown up and doing her thing is pretty awesome. Her energy and her talent are just unbelievable.”
Graff concurs. “Keke’s adorable and funny and has a realness to her that is fabulous. You can’t catch her acting; she’s just totally in her character. And man can she sing.”
Olivia’s attempt to convince her mom contemporary music can honor God just as much as old gospel standards falls on skeptical ears. Vi Rose may not be impressed, but G.G.’s grandson, played by Jeremy Jordan sure is. He can’t take his eyes off Olivia.
Kosove observes, “Keke Palmer and Jeremy Jordan are amazing young actors who are electric together.”
So are their characters, much to the chagrin of both G.G. and Vi Rose. In order to get closer to Olivia, Randy has to get closer to his church roots and join the choir.
Jordan reflects, “Coming back to Pacashau and finding Olivia is great, but I think what surprises Randy the most is that he’s been alone with his music. The second he puts on that choir robe, he finally realizes that this is a whole new musical pathway. It unlocks a new dimension for him.”
Graff discovered Jordan by happy accident while attending a Broadway production of “Rock of Ages.” He recalls, “I saw this kid who it turns out was the understudy. He blew me away, so much so that the next day I tracked down his agent, who told me it was the first time Jeremy had ever been on a stage in New York in his life…and I just happened to be in the audience. By the end of our first meeting I knew he was our guy.”
Jordan was honored to have an opportunity to both act and sing with Latifah and Parton. “Queen Latifah is real to the core and Dolly is larger than life, truly loving and caring. She’ll walk in the room and just light it up.”
Parton declares, “Jeremy is a precious person, I love him to death. He’s a joy to be around and a great singer, too. We got to do a duet, which was a real treat for me.”
Vi Rose may not be happy about the budding romance between Randy and her daughter, but she warms up to him when he seems to be the only one able to connect with her 15-year-old son Walter, who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome.
Dexter Darden plays the role of teenager Walter Hill. Graff recalls, “Dexter’s a big guy and, at first glance, might not appear as vulnerable as Walter’s supposed to be. But he was so accurate in terms of his clinical portrayal of Asperger’s and being able to tap in emotionally to the character, he became our Walter.”
Darden’s intrinsic understanding of the subtleties of Walter’s behavior, both physically and mentally, sprang from a childhood spent living with his cousin, who battled the same syndrome. “The heart of this story for me is Walter’s struggle,” Darden shares. “Asperger’s is a mild form of autism, which means you’re a little socially awkward, and can be very withdrawn. Understanding what my cousin went through, I tried to apply that and make Walter’s journey as realistic as possible.”
Walter’s condition both strains and strengthens his bond with his mother and sister as they all deal in different ways with the painful absence of a military father and husband, played by Jesse L. Martin.
There’s another kind of family represented in the movie: the choir of the Pacashau Sacred Divinity Church. It is the one remaining sliver of silver lining in this hard-hit town that people can still enjoy. It not only symbolizes that hope lies ahead, but reflects the close knit ties among the citizens, no matter if times are good or bad.
Latifah notes, “We have this great choir in the film that just brings so much energy and life to everything; it was exciting to be part of that.”
The majority of the group was played by local Atlanta singers and dancers, who formed a disparate group of personalities. The actors who portray more prominent choir members include: Angela Grovey as the choir choreographer Earla, whose hook up with Mr. Hsu, played by Francis Jue, has unexpected results; DeQuina Moore as the talkative Devonne, who listens in on everyone and comments about everything; Andy Karl as Caleb, who, perhaps more than anyone, represents the town’s current hardships; and Paul Woolfolk, as streetwise guitar player Manny, who also has eyes for Olivia.
Composer and Music Producer Mervyn Warren is seen in the film as the choir’s pianist. Warren has known Todd Graff for over a decade and relates, “It was important to Todd that every song be woven into the story and have its proper place in the film. The choir’s arc–where they start, where they end up, what happens in between–is compelling. Todd wanted energy, power and pathos. And that’s what we put into every song.”
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. Choirs perform from all over the country–big choirs, small choirs, praise dancers. These things are a huge deal.”
Warren began writing and arranging the music for the film just after Graff finished an early version of the script. “I enjoy the process,” he notes. “It’s like working a puzzle: a given song needs to accomplish something specific, needs to be a certain tempo, and needs to say something specific or comment upon the story.”
Both Warren and Graff also had another great collaborator in Dolly Parton, who often stops mid-conversation to jot down lyrics or notes with her ever-present pencil. She says, “I just write what I feel and what I think other people might be feeling.”
Parton contributed three songs to the film’s soundtrack: the gospel numbers “Not Enough” and “He’s Everything,” and the romantic ballad “From Here to the Moon and Back,” which she wrote for her real-life husband.
The song begins as a duet between Parton and Jeremy Jordan, but as G.G. sings the song, Randy and the present fade and she flashes back to the past, where she’s dancing and singing in happier times with her husband, Bernie, played by Kris Kristofferson.
Kristofferson offers, “‘From Here to the Moon and Back’ genuinely moved me. I’ve known Dolly a long time. All of Dolly’s heart and her soul are in all of her music. I also loved dancing with her although I’m not the most graceful person in the world, so I just hung onto her while we waltzed to this romantic song.”
Warren arranged a new version of the classic spiritual “Fix Me Jesus,” performed as a stirring solo by Queen Latifah, with whom Warren has collaborated previously on both albums and movies. Warren also wrote, for the film, the pop/R & B dance tune “I’m Yours,” which is performed by Keke Palmer, DeQuina Moore and Angela Grovey.
Graff wanted to draw from a variety of music genres in creating the choir’s singular sound. The infusion of pop music into worship was very much a part of the musical design for the film. The director affirms, “I decided that our choir would sing songs that had all gospel arrangements, but the songs themselves would range from pop, to rock, to R & B, but changed to reflect faith-based rather than secular lyrics. I called Merv and read him some lyrics I’d re-jiggered and asked if we could pull this off. He totally went for it.”
Palmer’s first solo in the film is a cover of one of Michael Jackson’s signature songs, “Man in the Mirror,” which meant something special to the actress. She emphasizes, “It was the first thing we shot and I was so excited. I love Michael Jackson and that’s one of my favorite songs. I feel honored and hope I did it justice.”
For Randy’s choir audition, Jordan, in a duet with Palmer, performs Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed,” which also takes on a spiritual connotation. Graff says, “I don’t think that the two worlds of traditional gospel music and secular music are so different. The lyric ‘Maybe I’m amazed by the way you love me all the time’ is a love song, but as soon as you put it into a church, it becomes about God without changing a word.”
Famed gospel singer Karen Peck makes a cameo appearance singing “Mighty High,” accompanied by the choir that opens the national competition. The Our Lady of Perpetual Tears children’s choir sings the Billy Preston tune “That’s The Way God Planned It,” featuring young soloist Ivan Kelley, Jr., sounding like an old pro.
Gospel great Kirk Franklin wrote “In Love” for the film and performs it with Detroit’s Holy Vision Church choir, which is Pacashau’s arch-rival. Graff describes the number as “really funky,” adding “Kirk dances like some version of Prince cross-bred with James Brown, but it’s all church music. It’s so charismatic and his band really cooks.”
Everything the choir has been through as a group and individually culminates with their show-stopping medley at the Joyful Noise national competition, demonstrating, like nothing before, how popular music lends itself to the gospel genre.
“The Higher Medley” begins with Sly & The Family Stone’s “I Want To Take You Higher,” featuring Keke Palmer and Andy Karl then smoothly transitions to Jeremy Jordan singing “Yeah!,” made popular by Usher; a trio of Dolly Parton, Angela Grovey and DeQuina Moore singing Chris Brown’s hit “Forever”; and Latifah rendering the Stevie Wonder classic “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” all with the Pacashau choir backing them up vocally and with dance moves.
Choreographer Michele Lynch came into the month of rehearsals with a structure after visiting several gospel churches and competitions. Once she saw what the actors could bring, she built on that. Lynch kept it simple at the beginning, layering more movement throughout as the choir’s journey continues to take them further out of their comfort zone.
“Joyful Noise” was photographed in and around Atlanta, Georgia during the winter months between January and April 2011. Director of photography David Boyd describes, “It was terribly cold and barren, but it was interesting that as the story takes a hopeful turn, the weather did, too. The very last scene of the film we had uninspiring, overcast skies, and then for maybe two takes the sun broke through with some magnificent rays of light.”
To create the ambiance of the small town of Pacashau, Graff turned to Jeff Knipp, who had been the production designer on his previous movie “Bandslam.”
At the core of the story and the community was the church, which Knipp saw as “the cornerstone from where the design would ultimately go.”
Bethany United Methodist, in Fayetteville, became the Pasachau Divinity Church. Knipp offers, “The stained glass windows were beautiful and spoke to all the different kinds of people that make up a congregation. It was more than we could hope for. Whatever we wanted to do they were loving and kind and open to it.”
To turn the Methodist Church into a Baptist one, Knipp designed a baptistery which harkened back to his childhood days spent in his grandparents’ church in Texas. He even recreated a mural of the River Jordan which had stuck in his head since he was a kid.
A homespun fixture where Vi and G.G.’s catfight escalates to food fight is the site of Vi’s second job as a waitress. The confrontation was filmed at Howard’s Delicatessen in the northwest Atlanta suburb of Smyrna.
“G.G. was throwing rolls and spaghetti–and Dolly’s got great aim, I don’t think she ever missed,” Latifah laughs. “Personally for me it was fun but I don’t know how much fun it was for Vi Rose. It’s probably the only time I’ve ever played a character who lost a fight in a movie, and to little bitty Dolly Parton.”
Knipp’s set decorator, Frank Galline, conceived of the idea of dressing a dominant wall with a military theme to subtly reflect Vi Rose’s struggles dealing with the war impacting her family. That theme reverberates, with American flags also displayed in various locations throughout the film “to honor all our military and their families,” Knipp reveals.
In several of the practical locations, the cast and crew had to maneuver in somewhat cramped quarters, including Vi Rose and G.G.’s houses. Knipp used their respective homes to visually reinforce their differences. G.G.’s antebellum abode was a historical residence in Newnan, one of the few pockets of Atlanta–and homes–not burned in the Civil war. The designer relates, “G.G. is more ethereal; I wanted her house to be frilly, using yellows and lots of light. When Dolly’s assistant walked in she said, ‘Wow, this kind of looks like Dolly’s house.'”
Vi Rose’s house was the antithesis: a brick home in Fairburn. Knipp shares, “Vi Rose is more pious. Her house was solid and rigid. We started with purples because there’s a scripture in Psalms which talks about the color of a virtuous woman being purple, and that fits Vi Rose.”
Other locations included the Masquerade Club in Atlanta, which stood in for the nightspot where Olivia and Randy go dancing; The Fredrick Brown Jr. Amphitheater in Peachtree City was the site of the local competition that opens the film; and the Dallas Theatre in Dallas, Georgia, became the outside amphitheatre where Kirk Franklin’s choir sings at the regionals.
Knipp recalls, “Doors flew open everywhere in Georgia when we mentioned Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah. People love them.”
In spite of their feuding, both Vi Rose and G.G. have one thing in common: they love the choir and want to beat Detroit at the finals. If they can survive the web of family dramas playing out, they might be able to make their way to Los Angeles to take a shot at the Joyful Noise National Choir Competition.
The most challenging scene to coordinate was the final gospel competition where choirs gather from all over the country to vie for the trophy. It took four days to build, choreograph and shoot the musical numbers for the different choirs.
The filmmakers advertised on television for the public to come participate in the filmed event and an enthusiastic crowd in excess of 2,000 showed up. Even cast members who had wrapped wanted to see the show. The live audience fed into the overall energy. Parton explains, “It was a big thrill for us to have a real audience, rather than just do it for the camera.”
Costuming the choirs was a different kind of design challenge. Costume designer Tom Broecker elaborates, “It’s tricky to have layers of individuality when everyone’s wearing a robe. So we did subtle differences with makeup or fingernails or hair or earrings. It’s a constant juggling act. You decide how to relate to them as a group, because whenever the choir was around, there were always going to be twenty people in a scene. So how do you balance that and, clump people together, and who stands out? Who doesn’t stand out?”
One person, however, always stands out. For G.G.’s look in the film, Broecker collaborated closely with Graff and Parton’s wardrobe assistant, Steve Summers. Broecker says, “We honed in on how to make the wardrobe a mixture of some G.G., with a little Dolly mixed in. G.G.’s thing is ruffles and adornment and there’s always movement to her clothes. She is color and flounce and florals, mixes of patterns, jewelry and rings. And no one else has a fitted choir robe. By contrast, Vi Rose’s wardrobe is more functional, in blues and reds and grays.”
The one scene in which Vi Rose really pops is at Sunday dinner at Pastor Dale’s house. She and G.G.’s dueling hats–the bigger, the better–were found locally in Atlanta.
Broecker and Knipp worked in tandem to create a color palette. Broecker offers, “At the start of the film, we wanted to reflect the town’s economic situation. It is a drab matte look, in muted tones. But the characters in the choir have a dual existence; when they’re singing, their life is shiny. So they have robes that shimmer.”
The robes for all the choirs were made by Seattle’s Murphy Robes, and The Shenandoah Robe Company, based in Illinois. “Both companies were enormously resourceful in getting sample fabrics and color swatches,” Broecker states. “We were always trying to hit that difference between big city and small town. Detroit is black and red and sexy–a hot city look. And Pacashau is in modest purple robes, which is very traditional. In the real competitions, the range of what people wear is vast. The robe was just a really great uniform for our particular choir to reinforce the small town aspect of it.”
At the beginning of “Joyful Noise,” the small town of Pacashau is struggling to stay on its feet, but its residents are making their way through the difficulties as best they can, focusing their hopes in their choir.
Therefore, it is fitting that the film’s coda is the lyric “Let us sing and raise our voice, let us make a joyful noise,” from Parton’s uplifting original song “He’s Everything,” which she and Latifah sing together, backed by the choir.
Parton reflects, “The Bible talks about making ‘a joyful noise unto the Lord, with stringed instruments and voice.’ Our movie is about that, there’s a lot of fun, a lot of laughter, some tension and some tears. And definitely the happy time we had making the film, the music we shared, the feelings we shared with each other…we really did make a joyful noise!”
Latifah adds, “I think we all wanted to bring the audience a positive experience–to go on a journey that leaves you feeling good about yourself, and good about the future. I really believe people, regardless of whether they are old or young or whether they like gospel or hip-hop, will feel that way when they leave the theatre.”
Graff concludes, “I think we just have so many stories of challenges in the world today and when it’s all said and done, everybody needs their spirit renewed. When I decided to do ‘Joyful Noise,’ I wanted to make a movie about great music but I also really wanted to touch people’s hearts. And I hope that we do.”