Sly Stone has been on my mind a lot lately. In case you don’t know about Sly, he was a San Francisco Bay Area DJ back in the 60s who decided he could write better songs than what he was having to play on the radio, and he formed a band called the Family Stone, composed of men and women of multiple races, which, at the time, was nothing short of a cultural declaration of war. From his radio experience, he came up with a simple but inimitable formula: hooks so funky that they would keep playing in the ear of anyone who heard them for days, but short songs, usually less than 3 minutes long, which meant more frequent plays on the radio. The math was right, the music rocked, and it all came together in a meteoric rise to fame and chart domination starting in 1967.
Things went awry almost immediately. The pressures of fame strained Sly’s relationship with his band, his family, and himself. Then came drugs, and that meant increasingly erratic behavior and limited musical output. He never really recovered, and his output and appearances have gone on to almost define the eccentricity of musical genius. As seems to always happen in these cases, Mr. Stone’s various managers and agents and record companies ripped him off in grand manner, and he hasn’t seen any of the at least $40 million in royalties he’s earned in the last few decades. In 2011, Sly was rumored (actually it was more than a rumor: there was an interview and photos) to be living in a van in LA, hooked on crack, but still writing music on a laptop powered by an extension cord run from a friend’s house.
These are dark days for Sly Stone, dark days for pop music, and dark days for movies. Last night I watched something called Joyful Noise, which featured a rendition of one of Uncle Sly’s songs. It’s a testament to just how great his music is that not even a production this banal could mess it up.
I’m not sure which is weirder: that I ended up watching this movie, or how it actually got made. Either way, my God. What a nightmare.
I suppose there are some “good” aspects to this debacle: it is not, to my knowledge, a remake, which is a first for Hollywood this decade. It stars Queen Latifah, who’s always good, and Dolly Parton, who looks absolutely amazing for 103. But that’s about it.
Queen and Dolly are the alpha females of a small-town gospel choir that gets their asses handed to them every year at the national competition. Their beloved choir leader, played by Kris Kristofferson, has a heart attack and dies in the opening scene, providing the only bit of plot I could actually get behind. I had high hopes that the rest of the movie would be composed entirely of scenes of choir members dying, but alas, ‘twas not thus. Instead, not only do the rest of the choir members live on relentlessly (okay, there is one other choir death), but they keep singing ludicrously over-produced covers of pop songs, the lyrics of which have frequently been “gospelized” horrendously. While they are all shameful, far and away the most insipid is a version of Usher’s “Yeah,” which, well…here:
Up in the church with my homies, trying to get a little praise on, but it keep it down on the low key, cause you know how it is.
I saw shawty, she was checking up on me, from the game she was singin in my ear, you would think that she knew me, so we decided to chill.
The worship got heavy, she had me feeling like I’m ready to blow. Oh.
God saying “Come get me! So I got down in front, my knees on the floor. That’s when I told God, I said, “Yeah, yeah.”
The other three people I was watching the movie with, including and especially the two teenagers whose idea it had been to watch this damn thing, fell deeply asleep within 15 minutes of the opening credits. They had the right idea. But inexplicably, I kept watching.
Some other sort of quasi-plottish things happened, but I don’t think there was an actual writer involved in the “creation” of this script. They were the sort of things a free plot-generating app could generate. Seriously. It was like what someone would come up with when their pitching their really great idea to a movie exec, and that movie exec says, “Nope, I don’t like it. What else you got?” and then that someone just makes something up on the spot.
The whole thing comes to a horrendous crescendo featuring the Queen/Dolly choir doing this massively produced medley with Sly Stone’s “Higher” as its core. It’s supposed to be this last-minute decision when Queen Latifah sees that the audience is, much like the audience at home, falling asleep during their rehearsed song, but the production and choreography are on par with the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. I hope that Sly saw a fat royalty check from this cinematic turd, but given the millions of dollars he’s already been screwed out of, I doubt it. Whether he did or not, during the last hour of this movie, as my fellow viewers blissfully slept, I couldn’t help but thinking that even if he is in a van in LA, smoking crack and making music on a laptop, he’s probably better off than he would be sitting through this ridiculousness.
Stay of the crack, and stay away from Joyful Noise.