starring Meryl Streep, Angela Bassett, Aidan Quinn, Jane Leeves
screenplay by Pamela Gray
directed by Wes Craven
by Bill Chambers I should start this review by telling you how much I hate the generic title Music of the Heart. Wes Craven's bid for prestige was more evocatively (and appropriately) called 50 Violins in development, and the switch only proves how far distributor Miramax has strayed from its edgier roots. Almost as infuriating is the positioning of an 'N Sync/Gloria Estafan duet as Music of the Heart's theme song: a nigh unlistenable ballad opens and closes a film about music appreciation.
Based on the Oscar-nominated 1995 documentary Small Wonders, Music of the Heart casts Meryl Streep as real-life figure Roberta Guaspari, a divorced mother of two sons who develops, at the urging of an old friend and classmate, Brian (Aidan Quinn), a violin program for Harlem grade-schoolers. The reception from staff, students, and parents is chilly at first (there are colonialist overtones in a white woman taking over the music department with a snobby instrument), but staunch Roberta eventually wins over all three.
The story shares not only its basic outline with Mr. Holland's Opus but also an extremely frustrating "X Years Later" title card that weakly compacts Roberta's experiences as an educator into an ellipsis. (Are both movies telling us the life of a teacher is so repetitive that the intervening years between getting hired and retiring are a write-off?) It also cleaves the film in two, and I prefer the first half: the didacticism is kept to a minimum, the narrative takes genuine risks (I did not foresee the outcome of Roberta's hesitant romance with Brian), and Roberta's militaristic conduct in the classroom provides a refreshing take on the To Sir, With Love archetype--no affable Mr. Holland, she. She will be placed on the same pedestal, however, in the picture's second half.
The latter part of Music of the Heart brings with it unintentional humour, soapboxing, and some slack direction from Craven, who seems to lose his sense of economy in abandoning the horror genre. When a few of Roberta's graduates return to strut their stuff for the new batch of students, they are conveniently the exact children we met earlier, all grown up. When the realities of urban life in the Nineties hit Roberta, the sequence plays out in a tenor more suited to an "ABC Afterschool Special". More gravely, this subplot and many others get little closure, which would be fine in a less unambiguous film than this one. Take, for example, the near-expulsion of Roberta's oldest son, Nick (played Michael Angarano at 7 and Charlie Hofheimer at 17), whose wild-child behaviour is encapsulated by a cheesy, choppy playground brawl. One heart-to-heart with Roberta later and he's a cherubic goodie-goodie again, forevermore. The primary grades are tough on a kid, especially in inner cities--how were his problems resolved outside the home? (Young Nick does, after all, almost murder another boy.)
Craven's biggest blunder is to build audience anticipation for a rendezvous between real-life master violinist Itzhak Perlman and the newest crop of "small wonders." After her funding is cut (and after Roberta, Principal Williams (Angela Bassett), a journalist (Jane Leeves), and a cadre of townsfolk have sat around like so many Muppets in Roberta's living room cooking up harebrained get-rich-quick schemes), Roberta plans a benefit concert, the venue for which hinges on Perlman's input. His name is invoked in virtually every scene leading up to the climax, yet his cameo amounts to a single shot. Blink and you'll miss him. I wanted the disabled Perlman to share a moment with the girl who also can't stand up when she plays her instrument, even if it didn't actually happen. Pamela Gray's screenplay is at once overly formulaic and stingy when it comes to rewarding expectations.
I don't feel it necessary to dwell on Craven's (temporary?) desertion of the horror genre, though while writing this I had the epiphany that timing is everything in horror movies and comedies: There's little in Music of the Heart, a light drama, that exercises Craven's well-honed skills, save for a few genuinely amusing takes from Josh Pais as Roberta's teaching rival, Dennis. That said, Craven just turned 60, and I fully sympathize with his desire to branch out; most horror directors pack it in well before that. But he does seem a bit lost without his sting notes. Originally published: October 29, 1999.