As popular as it is, gospel music doesn’t really get its fair share of the spotlight at the cineplex. Outside of 1992’s Sister Act (and its ’93 sequel) and 1996’s The Preacher’s Wife, gospel music has generally been left for Sunday services.

Along comes Joyful Noise, which puts gospel music front and center in a Glee-style showcase of talent both young (Jeremy Jordan and Keke Palmer) and old (Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah). It’s as corny as Kansas in August, but it’s got its heart in the right place, and the musical numbers more than make up for a plot (and script) riddled with so much cheese it would make a hunka cheddar jealous.

After the director (Kris Kristofferson) of the church choir in small-town Pacashau, Georgia, suffers a mid-performance heart attack, Vi Rose (Latifah) is picked to keep things up and going, much to the chagrin of the director’s widow G.G. (Parton). At the same time, G.G.’s new-in-town grandson Randy starts gettin’ googly-eyes for Vi’s soloist daughter Olivia.

The conflict between mother and daughter, along with Vi and G.G. butting heads over song choices (traditional vs. new and hip), gives the movie its only sense of drama, but there’s plenty of comedy and more than its fair share of sentimental gooey-ness; Vi’s absentee husband (Jesse L. Martin) is a devoted Army man, and her son Walter (Dexter Darden) is coping with Asperger Syndrome by professing his love for one-hit wonders.

The main plot, though, focuses on the question of whether the choir can go from being a perennial also-ran to winning the National Joyful Noise Competition (I won’t spoil it, but I’ll give you three guesses, and the first two don’t count).

Latifah and Parton are both a ball to watch in this; their verbal sparring keeps things lively and fun, and they both knock it out of the park when they get their respective turn to show off their vocal chops. Jordan brings his considerable Broadway prowess to his movie debut, and Palmer (True Jackson, VP) proves she’s got a pretty solid knack for gospel, too.

Writer/director Todd Graff (Bandslam) gets a little heavy-handed with both the sentiment and the local vernacular (if I never hear “y’hear” again, it will be too soon), but by and large the film works. (If it weren’t for a few pointed bits of profanity and a sexually-themed subplot, it would even make for a nice all-ages film.)

It’s clearly aimed at the Bible Belt, but there’s no reason anyone who appreciates a bit of good gospel can’t sing the praises of Joyful Noise.

3.5/5 stars