NEW YORK—Queen Latifah, who is 5-10, has Dolly Parton, who is not, in a headlock. “Ow, you’re breakin’ mah hair!” Parton shrieks. “Quit it with those nails, Edward Scissorhands!” Latifah exclaims. This is after the food fight.
These things happen in the musical comedy Joyful Noise (which opens January 13), in which Latifah and Parton play combative members of a Georgia gospel choir. Latifah is the choir’s tightly wound new director, Vi Rose Hill, who has two challenging teenagers and a soldier husband who is AWOL from their marriage. Parton is the curiously named G. G. Sparrow, who wants the choir to shake things up—including some ass—to win a national competition. Much headbutting, headlocking, and, oh, yes, spirited music ensues.
In real life, one recent Saturday afternoon, the two singer-actors sit side by side in a New York hotel room. Latifah, who wears sizable hoop earrings and her hair smoothed back into a high ponytail, appears perhaps prettier than she does on film. Parton appears exactly like one expects her to—meaning like, well, Dolly Parton. Somewhat disappointingly, the two don’t seem like they’re going to mix it up off-screen anytime soon.
“The first day we worked together was at the recording studio,” Parton says. “And it was just magic. It was like, I knew I’d love her and I have and I do.”
Latifah can do that love one better. “She was so humble and giving and cool and funny,” she says. “I’m like, Dolly is really Dolly! And I could barely keep my uncles off the phone, calling me up, asking: ‘How’s Dolly? Tell Dolly I said “Hi.” ’ I’m like, ‘I know what you mean by that. I know what you thinkin’. You stop that!’ ”
Important fact: no one who knows anything calls Latifah “Queen”. They call her by her given name, Dana. On the more random end of the Queen Latifah facts spectrum, a fan once sent her this “gift”: “Somebody gave me a dead bat. In a box!”
Gospel and Latifah have history. As a child, she had church on Sundays, Bible school in the summers, and an aunt who directed a big southern gospel choir. “The only time I can honestly say I ever almost caught the Holy Ghost—maybe because I think too much—was in choir rehearsal with my aunt. This song had just moved me. I was 12 years old and I felt this feeling come over me and I almost started, like, just kind of losin’ it. And then it scared me and I pulled back, like, ‘What’s happening to me?’ I had to have a talk with my grandmother about that. She told me to just let it happen next time.” Everyone, including Latifah herself, laughs at this story.
“But it’s just something about that music and what it’s sayin’ and what you’re feelin’ when it’s happenin’,” she says. “It’s not just a song. It happens to you.”
Latifah’s enthusiasm for Parton apparently knows no bounds. “She cooks a mean chicken and dumplings,” Latifah says. “She cooks fudge. She brought fudge to the set. Who works 16-hour days and goes home and makes fresh fudge? Peanut butter and chocolate. It was like crack on the set.”
Watch the trailer for Joyful Noise.