In Tough Times, Dolly Parton Makes A 'Joyful Noise'

Jan 18, 2012
Originally published on January 26, 2012 3:09 pm

What would you do if the little town you lived in — and loved — was slowly dying, with no jobs and little hope?

In the new film Joyful Noise, a small-town Georgia church faces hard times with hallelujahs when a national competition offers their financially strapped choir its only chance at survival.

Dolly Parton, who plays the quick-witted G.G. Sparrow in the movie, thinks many people can relate to the movie's theme of pushing forward during hard times — that is, after all, what propelled Parton from the impoverished Appalachians to Nashville, becoming an American icon in the process.

Parton tells Michel Martin, host of NPR's Tell Me More, that it's a good time for the feel-good movie, which is about "a little town that's going through their problems, like everyone is these days."

With the National Joyful Noise Competition looming, choir director Vi Rose Hill, played by Queen Latifah, makes the group get serious about traditional gospel music. But when G.G.'s grandson Randy suggests the choir take a chance on more modern songs, a holy battle flares up — and only gains heat when it's discovered that Randy (played by Jeremy Jordan) has the hots for Vi Rose's daughter, Olivia (Keke Palmer). At issue isn't race, but the fact that Randy's a bit of a bad boy.

The two leading ladies move beyond polite church chatter when Vi Rose lambasts G.G. for all the plastic surgery she's had. Parton's character retorts, "God didn't put plastic surgeons on earth to starve."

Parton asked writer and director Todd Graff to include this sort of humor.

"He was afraid to touch on some things," she tells Martin. "But I said, 'Look, I'm not touchy at all about this. If we can get a laugh, I'm all for it.' "

Music For The Movie

Three of the songs featured in the film are Parton's own, including "From Here to the Moon and Back," a ballad that she sings with actor and singer Jordan.

Parton has written thousands of songs and released dozens of albums since she started making music more than 40 years ago.

Graff told Nell Minow of the Movie Mom blog that the country music star's reputation for being prolific is not undeserved.

Graff said that when he asked Parton to revise a song she'd written to better fit the film, "she would say, 'If you don't like it, I'll write another one. It only takes me an hour.' "

In all, Parton ended up writing 12 songs, some of which she hopes to rework for future demos.

"Well, I love to write," the Grammy Award-winning singer says. "Especially when I've got a challenge."

Parton, who can play 12 instruments but can't read music, says songwriting comes naturally to her. "I just need a subject," she says, "and I'm off and running, 'cause I know how to rhyme, and I love the music, and I just go for it."

Singing Through Hard Times

Graff wrote the script with Parton in mind, and wardrobe aside, many elements of G.G.'s character bear true to the country star's life — including her strong faith.

But Parton, who's the granddaughter of a Pentecostal minister, says that when she was growing up, "we didn't have a choir, because we couldn't have afforded robes, but the whole congregation would sing."

The "Queen of Country" has sold millions of albums and won countless awards, but Parton has a humble background. Her father was a sharecropper, and she and her siblings grew up in a one-room cabin in Tennessee.

Like her character in the film, Parton has confronted hardship with good humor, hard work and resilience.

"I have been very poor," Parton said when she last sat down with Martin a few years ago, "and I know a lot of poor people that were having hard times before, and now they're having worse times."

But in a line that could have just as easily been said by her character in Joyful Noise, Parton added: "Even if we go down the tubes, let's go hand in hand trying to do something about it."

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Switching gears now. What would you do if the little town you lived in and loved was slowly dying? There were no jobs, little hope. Well, of course you'd enter a national gospel competition.


QUEEN LATIFAH: (Singing) There's no room for hating in a heart full of kindness. How long will it take then for that to ring true?

DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) Our chances are fading, just stop all this blindness.

SINGERS: (Singing) A new world is waiting for us if we do.

MARTIN: That is the premise of a new movie starring Oscar nominees Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton. The film is called "Joyful Noise," and it opened last Friday in theaters around the country. As we said, it follows a choir from a church in a struggling small town in Georgia as they try again, to lift the spirits of the town by winning a national gospel competition.

Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton play two women who both have a big role in the choir. But friction mounts between the leading ladies, and some unlikely romances bloom between other members of the choir.

Here to tell us more is none other than the legendary Dolly Parton. I'm sure she won't mind us mentioning that she sold more than 100 million albums and won more music awards than we can count. "Joyful Noise" is her first feature film in years.

Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us.

PARTON: Well, thank you. It's always nice to talk to you and we are very excited about our "Joyful Noise" movie. We had a joyful time doing it. Todd Graff, who wrote and directed it, wrote it with me in mind and I thought, well, nobody else can play it because I'm not going to let them. It's too close to me. I got a chance to wear my big hair and high heels and my fingernails and my clothes the way I wear them. But it's about time I got to do something. So I was glad it came along right now. It's a good time for this kind of movie to lift the spirits up with people, as you were saying at the start. It's about a little town that's going through their problems, like everybody is these days. But this is such a feel-good movie. It's funny and it's about family and it's about love and hope and promise and faith.

MARTIN: We have to talk about all that. So first thing I noticed is that race takes a back seat in this film. It's a pretty obvious fact but nobody talks about it. I mean everybody's suffering together and that the degree to which people are suffering, it really doesn't have anything to do with their race. It just has to do with the fact that everybody's suffering together. So the question I wanted to ask you is, do you think this is the way the world really is now and we just haven't caught up? Or is this the way you wish it were?

PARTON: I appreciate what you said about this film because we never even thought of that. In fact, Queen Latifah's daughter, who is in love with my grandson, the problems was not about the race, it was about the fact that he was kind of a bad boy and she didn't want her daughter being with him. So we, you know, we never even addressed any of those issues. But this is how it could be, how it should be and maybe movies like this always helps.

MARTIN: The other fresh thing though, about the casting here is that you mentioned that there's the predictable romance between - well, not necessarily predictable, but let's just say there's a romance between the two, you know, super good-looking young folks, like Jeremy Jordan, who plays your grandson, so gorgeous, and, of course, the gorgeous Keke Palmer...

PARTON: Oh yeah.

MARTIN: ...who plays Queen Latifah's daughter. So, that's that. But there's another romance between people who you don't often see as the object of desire. There's an African-American woman, who is not your traditional beauty. There is an Asian man, who is not your traditional, you know, hottie. And I was interested in that.


PARTON: Todd Graff did a brilliant thing by touching on all those things because I think it's the way life really is. I mean you do have those - everybody falls in love. You don't - you never know who you're going to fall in love with. But I thought he addressed that so well.

MARTIN: Well, you said that you had a lot of fun working with Queen Latifah. And, you know, I was going to ask you about that because there are a couple of really kind of, some very interesting moments between the two of you in the film and I'm going to play a short clip of a scene with the two of you and there is some friction over the leadership, you know, of the choir. But it's actually about a lot of things. But here's a scene where the two of you are kind of finally getting your issues out on the table. Here it is.



PARTON: (as G.G. Sparrow) God didn't make plastic surgeons so they could starve, but you could use a complete facelift.

LATIFAH: (as Vi Rose Hill) Girl, I feel fine about myself.

PARTON: (as G.G. Sparrow) Well, I don't see how you could, you old hateful heifer.

LATIFAH: (as Vi Rose Hill) Your daughter didn't even come to her own father's funeral.

PARTON: (as G.G. Sparrow) You are so convinced your way is the only way there is: infallible, untouchable, unlovable. I don't care.

LATIFAH: (as Vi Rose Hill) What is it with those nails, Edward Scissorhands?

PARTON: This particular scene was so fun to do. It took us a day and a half almost for us to do...

MARTIN: She got you in a headlock, Dolly. I mean...

PARTON: She got me in a headlock and I was one of my lines was, you're breaking my hair. It took me a half a day to do it. But she's so big, you know, she's a tall, big girl and I'm so tiny.

MARTIN: I know, and you're tiny.

PARTON: We actually got along great behind the scenes. We're both crazy and we had a lot of laughs.

MARTIN: Some of the lines in the film just are ragging on you from word go. Like the Latifah character says that, well, you know, the way you have your choir robes, you know, tailored to show off your boobs and all this other thing.


MARTIN: And I was just wondering. And then they talk about your hair and all of this stuff. I mean you probably could've asked for some rewrites there to make it a little nicer.

PARTON: Well, actually, a lot of it I suggested because I know what makes people laugh and people know. And Todd, he was afraid to touch on some things. But I said, look, I'm not touchy at all about this. If we can get a laugh, I'm all for it.

MARTIN: So have you had a few nips and tucks, as you said, so that...

PARTON: Well, absolutely. I've had more than a few and I'll have a few more when I need them.


MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with the legendary Dolly Parton. She co-stars in the new film "Joyful Noise." It's about a small-town trying to win a big national gospel competition.

Let's talk about the music. You grew up singing gospel. I don't know if you called it gospel then. What did you call it when you were growing up? Church music, right?

PARTON: Oh well, just church music.

MARTIN: Church music.

PARTON: Spiritual music. Yeah, church. My grandpa was a Pentecostal preacher and my mother's people were all very musical. We didn't have a choir because we couldn't afford any robes, but we - the whole congregation would sing and that's that very high-spirited Holy Roller people. You know, everybody just can sing as loud as they want to and shout or whatever. So that was natural for me, and I know that Queen Latifah grew up singing in the choir in her family. So it was very natural for both of us. And I love church music, gospel. Songs of praise makes me feel better than anything.

MARTIN: Well...

PARTON: And so this was - go ahead.

MARTIN: Go ahead. No, I was going to say but one of the tensions, one of the other storylines in the film is about the tension between styles and what it represents to people. G.G. and her grandson are saying you know what, maybe the reason we haven't is that we need to freshen up our style. And Queen Latifah kind of represents the traditionalists who are holding onto what they grew up with. And I was just wondering, since you are such a prolific songwriter, I did wonder if you ever feel that tension yourself or is that a struggle for you?

PARTON: The music business period is completely different than it used to be, even the church music, and especially with us in the church. We probably would've always in this particular movie would've been content to continued with our, you know, the stuff that we did. But we knew we were never going to win and we needed to win. We needed to win so our choir can stay active. But I'm not opposed to rolling with the times, rolling with the punches. You have to keep up.

MARTIN: You wrote three songs for the film. But I read in a interview with Todd Graff that you actually wrote 12 all together.

PARTON: Well, I wrote a bunch of songs but, actually, we were - the deal that I had made with him that I would get, you know, songs in the movie. I was originally going to have five songs but I didn't push that because, you know, the way they have to edit, you know, you have to lose stuff, and I completely understand. But I wrote at least two, sometimes three songs for each spot. So he just picked the best of all the stuff that I did and I was real proud of the three that I got in. I wrote the "Not Enough Love," "From Here to the Moon and Back" and "He's Everything."

MARTIN: You know, though, I think though, one of the most beautiful scenes though, in the film - and there are many, is this - where you did keep it simple with your star Jeremy Jordan, who played your grandson. And you played this - it's a kind of a lullaby, "From Here to the Moon and Back."


PARTON: (Singing) From here to the moon and back, who else in this world will love you like that? Love everlasting, I promise you that. From here to the moon and back. From here...

In that particular scene, that's the one getting back to Kris Kristofferson who dies early on, he comes back. And my grandson, after my husband is dead, which is his grandpa, he's heard my husband and I sing that song for, you know, for years so that's how he knows it. But the actual inspiration, you know, when Todd needed a particular song for that spot then I chose my husband for the inspiration to that. And that was kind of an emotional scene, just thinking about if my husband really was dead, you know, how awful, you know, that would be and how sad that would be. So it was written for my husband.

MARTIN: Oh, that's so - that was so - it's a lovely moment, you know, and so simple.

PARTON: Thank you.

MARTIN: Who do you think will see this film? Who do you want to see it?

PARTON: Well, I certainly think it would be very popular with church groups or people that, you know, believe in God, believe in Jesus and that loves music. I know it will get a huge black audience because we have so many of our wonderful, you know, black people in it. But I just hope that everybody will see it. I know that all my fans will see it. I know all of her fans will see it. I think it's really going to be across the board.

MARTIN: Dolly Parton co-stars in the new film "Joyful Noise." It's playing in theaters nationwide. She was kind enough to join us from NPR member station NYC in New York.

Dolly Parton, thank you so much for speaking with us.

PARTON: Thank you. You have a good day.

MARTIN: If you want to learn more about the film, just go to Click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE.


KEKE PALMER: (as Olivia) (Singing) Feelings getting stronger.

JEREMY JORDAN: (as Randy) (Singing) Music getting longer too.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.