“How Did This Get Made?” Hears a Joyful Noise
Let’s wallow in a half-forgotten Queen Latifah-Dolly Parton vehicle.
Nothing about the 2012 movie musical Joyful Noise should work. It’s a strange mish-mosh of Pitch Perfect (the big twist), Sister Act 2 (the overall premise), The Preacher’s Wife (Courtney B. Vance’s role), the TV series “Smash” (Jeremy Jordan as a rule-breakin’ bad boy who can belt) and Weekend at Bernie’s (yes, really). It’s a film about Christian subject matter, produced by a major studio, written and directed by a gay Jewish man, and starring two musical legends with massive gay and lesbian fanbases. And it’s entirely possible that most of the budget was sunk into licensing a Michael Jackson song (“Man in the Mirror”), a Paul McCartney composition (“Maybe I’m Amazed”), and a then-current pop hit (Usher’s “Yeah!” but with the lyrics changed to be about gettin’ your praise on).
It’s by no means a perfect movie, but I find myself returning to it every so often OnDemand, and quite a lot of theatre Twitter does, too. From what I’ve gleaned of his oeuvre, Todd Graff is a gifted writer and director with original movie ideas that get filed down so much, it’s surprising when an inside joke or ultra-specific reference to his childhood makes it into the final cut. Of course a Todd Graff movie would have a moody indie girl with a “5” in her name who insists that “The 5 is silent.” Already, Graff has made thinly-veiled autobiographical films about his time as a professional showbiz kid (Camp), his young adulthood in a rock band (Bandslam), and his mother’s side gig as a choir director for the Jewish community organization Hadassah (which was changed to a Christian choir for this film). His insider knowledge is especially palpable on his DVD commentaries, where he talks just as effortlessly about Stephen Sondheim’s Follies as he does about electric guitar accessories.
Although, Graff was also lucky to have his mentors offer guidance on his films: Paul Thomas Anderson, John August, Peter Marc Jacobson, and Arthur Laurents all contributed in some way to Graff’s filmography, helping to tighten and refine his final drafts. In this sense, Joyful Noise is far better than competent, and not nearly as bad or bewildering as the average candidate for a “How Did This Get Made?” But it’s equally worthy of over an hour of discussion, even if that discussion negates its very existence. With that random “black widow” subplot, how could it not?
Though most of its episodes are now done live, and with multiple guests, “How Did This Get Made?” is a podcast about said bewildering movies, hosted by Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas, and June Diane Raphael. They don’t hate all of these films, and don’t necessarily think that they’re all bad, but the hosts and guests derive enough enjoyment contemplating the process (the Fast and Furious films are a staple) to wring comedy from it. The Joyful Noise episode came out shortly after the film itself, and features one guest, Fred Stoller, a veteran stand-up familiar to anyone who’s watched “Seinfeld” or “Everybody Loves Raymond.” “Joyful Noise w/ Fred Stoller” has an energy palpably different from the most recent installments, which thrive on live taping, the reliance on clips to illustrate key points, and multiple guests playing off of the audience. Tellingly, the Joyful Noise episode has been removed from their Soundcloud and the Earwolf website (the show just started taking episodes down and putting them back up periodically, in random order, as a protective move). It’s too bad. Stoller’s insights are priceless, particularly his description of how Jeremy Jordan’s character couldn’t possibly be a delinquent because he’s nice to his parents, plays multiple instruments, and teaches an autistic teenager how to sing and play piano. Stoller’s freewheeling vibe benefits the show in ways that few guests have matched, and the intimate setting helps.
Joyful Noise, as a movie, is overstuffed with too many extemporaneous elements, from a multi-ethnic cast of comic archetypes to subplots involving PTSD and Asperger’s Syndrome, but its heart is in the right place. Given its thin plot, the weird details and tonal shifts, not surprisingly, warrant the most attention. Raphael (Breanna on “Grace and Frankie”) actually loves the dream sequence where Parton waltzes with departed husband Kris Kristofferson. The final conflict seems particularly inconsequential and played out, even if there hasn’t been another film about the real-life choir competition it’s based on. Yet, all of the hosts can see Joyful Noise for what it is: A slick experiment in musical comedy that might have been better suited to the indieverse (where, not surprisingly, Camp gained a massive following among Generation Y). There are worse musicals that have captured the show’s aim, from Grease 2 to Can’t Stop the Music. In fact, only one movie musical has been covered on all of the popular “let’s snark on flop movies” podcasts, and its relation to Broadway is tangential at best. Joyful Noise, though, is more in line with the Fast and Furious films or the collected oeuvre of Bai Ling: The hosts don’t hate it, but they’re fascinated with it all the same. Can you blame them? It demands its own kind of attention.
While not the best episode of “HDTGM,” “Joyful Noise w/ Fred Stoller” does a great job encapsulating the more surreal aspects of the film and debating whether they work in its favor. For theatre fans, and fans of half-forgotten movie musicals, it’s also a priceless gateway drug into an enduring comedy podcast.
Next: Is this the theatre world’s “Missing Richard Simmons”?