Music of the Heart (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

To call Music of the Heart a departure for filmmaker Wes Craven is to make an understatement of colossal proportions. Craven, the driving force behind two of the world's most popular horror movie series, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, has opted to venture out of the niche where he has experienced his most success and try something different. Music of the Heart is nothing if not a change of pace, and, unfortunately, Craven doesn't appear entirely comfortable in these new surroundings. Instead of crafting a powerful, insightful drama, he has used cliches and manipulation to skate through sentimental material. The end product is overwrought and guilty of pandering to a crowd-pleasing mentality. Think Dangerous Minds meets Mr. Holland's Opus.

The movie is "based on a true story," and carries with it all the pitfalls that often accompany such a statement. Pamela Gray's soft script takes the basic facts and carefully molds them so they slide neatly into a feel-good formula necessary to uplift audiences. There's no genuine emotion in one frame of this motion picture. Every tear or laugh is carefully orchestrated by Gray's screenplay and the manner in which Craven imbues it with life. The payoff isn't in getting to know the characters, who seem generated using a cookie cutter - it's in getting to the end so we can cry and cheer along with the men and women on-screen. Anyone who appreciated the mawkishness of Patch Adams will probably think Music of the Heart is wonderful. For those who are genuinely interested in the story, it is chronicled in the 1996 documentary (also released by Miramax) Small Wonders. That film is far more inspiring because it lacks Music of the Heart's insipid tone.

Music of the Heart is the tale of Roberta Guaspari (Meryl Streep), a single mother who teaches violin at an East Harlem elementary school. Roberta isn't there entirely by choice. When her husband abandons her, she is forced to become the sole provider for her two sons, Nick (Michael Angarano, who grows up to become Charlie Hofheimer) and Lexi (Henry Dinhofer, later Kieran Culkin). When an old high school classmate and potential current lover, Brian Sinclair (Aidan Quinn), clues her in that there might be a music teacher job opening at a Harlem school, she applies. However, after the job interview, principal Janet Williams (Angela Bassett) does not offer Roberta the position, primarily because the mother of two has no previous experience. Undaunted, Roberta brings her children to school the next day and has them audition before Janet to prove her capability as a teacher. Roberta is then given the job, albeit on a temporary basis. The rest of the movie unfolds in a predictable manner, with Roberta making a difference in the lives of many of her students. And, when budgetary cutbacks threaten the music program, Roberta and her pupils fight to make up the money on their own, through a Carnegie Hall benefit concert called "Fiddlefest."

Music of the Heart plays out in an entirely expected fashion, which may explain its appeal to a segment of the movie-going population that thrives on recycled plots. And, while the most obvious problem with the picture is the manner in which Craven ratchets up the melodrama, the storyline also has an incomplete, disjointed feel. Without a strong narrative drive to propel events forward and powerfully realized characters to draw us in, this picture feels more like back-to-back episodes of a TV drama than a feature film.

There are things I liked about Music of the Heart. The domestic scenes with Roberta attempting to raise her two sons while coping with the emotional loss of her husband have the ring of truth. The relationship between Brian and Roberta is developed in a low-key, believable manner. And perhaps the most interesting aspect of the movie is the way in which Craven explores the racial overtones inherent in Roberta's employment. She does not see herself as a "white savior," but that perception is adopted by others who view her presence as interfering and perhaps even threatening. One mother does not want a white woman teaching her son "dead white man's music" when he could be using his time doing something else. (What she fails to realize, and Roberta attempts to point out, is that learning music can be important to a child's self-esteem.)

If you ask any savvy movie-goer to name the five best working actresses, Meryl Streep's name will almost certainly be mentioned. With the grace and effectiveness of a chameleon, Streep can inhabit another personality, altering her appearance, accent, and demeanor at will. There is seemingly no role she is incapable of playing. Yet, even at her best, it's questionable whether she could have kept Music of the Heart from slipping into a melodramatic sinkhole. And this is not the actresses' finest hour. Instead, it's an oddly workmanlike performance; there are scenes when she fails to convince. After coming to the project late in development (replacing Madonna, who departed over "creative differences" with Craven), Streep reportedly worked tirelessly to ensure that her approach to the violin was correct, but the technical perfection does not carry over into the dramatic aspects of her work. It doesn't help that two of her co-stars, Oscar nominee Angela Bassett and singer Gloria Estefan, are flat. Aidan Quinn brings energy and enthusiasm to his part, but has a surprisingly small part for a second-billed actor.

One can hope that the numerous problems with Music of the Heart are the result of Craven's feeling his way in a new genre. The storyline has a heart and soul, but they are presented to the audience in an overstrained manner. Craven unstoppers the bottle and lets the syrup pour out over everything when he should be applying it lightly and judiciously instead. If he continues to work outside of the horror arena in the future, hopefully he will develop his own style; this Frank Marshall impersonation doesn't suit him.

Music of the Heart (United States, 1999)

Run Time: 2:04
U.S. Release Date: 1999-10-29
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1