Music of the Heart (1999) ***1/2
Directed by Wes Craven. Written by Pamela Gray, based on the life story of Roberta Guaspari and inspired by the documentary "Small Wonders." Photography, Peter Deming. Editing, Patrick Lussier. Production design, Bruce Miller. Music, Mason Daring. Produced by Marianne Maddalena,Walter Scheuer, Allan Miller and Susan Kaplan. Cast: Meryl Streep (Roberta Guaspari), Aidan Quinn (Brian Sinclair), Gloria Estefan (Isabel Vasquez), Angela Bassett (Janet Williams), Jane Leeves (Dorothea von Haeften), Cloris Leachman (Assunta Guaspari), Kieran Culkin (Teen-age Lexi), Charlie Hofheimer (Teen-age Nick), Josh Pais(Dennis Rausch) et al. A Miramax release 110 minutes. PG Wonders will never cease, said Sophocles.(Not the ancient Greek but a friend who speaks in cliches). Wes Craven, a shockmeister( plus schlockmeister for some), the creator of Freddy Krueger (Nightmare on Elm Street), is synonymous with horror flicks such as Scream, The People Under the Stairs, Shocker, The Swamp Thing, The Hills Have Eyes, Vampire in Brookyn, etc.
The 77-minute documentary Small Wonders, released in 1996, made by Allen and Lana Miller, and Oscar-nominated, dealt with East Harlem violin teacher Roberta Guaspari-Tzavaras, whose sheer dedication, persistence and missionary-like zeal succeeded in educating hundreds of kids in the face of lack of funds and equipment, elimination of music and arts programs in the city's budget, and personal difficulties.
Craven, a professorial-looking, classical music lover, now middle-aged, saw the documentary, was enthusiastic about making a theatrical feature of it, pursued his project with fervor. Overcoming raised eyebrows and several stumbling blocks, (Madonna was to be his star), he was at long last able to enlist Meryl Streep who had never seen any of his films, to come up with a first-rate writer, other good performers, an amazing array of children, and finally a movie that looks, sounds and plays beautifully.
The film caught me by surprise. Its previews don't do it justice. The title is sentimental, old-fashioned. (It was originally 50 Violins, which suggested a musical film, hence a probable loss of public). Every sign pointed to a feelgood, inspirational picture, of which too many are schlock without shock. But watching the finished product I realized that I, too, had fallen into the trap of preconceptions and generalizations about films with dedicated teachers. I had forgotten Mr.Holland's Opus; or the marvelous ancestor of them all, Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939); or the sweet-and-sour gem The Blackboard Jungle (1955), the British To Sir, with Love (1967), the less-known The Corn is Green (with Bette Davis, 1945) and others.
I suspect that my suspiciousness came from too many films made for teen tastes in the last two decades. They were school comedies --often funny for adults too --in which students did everything but study and their teachers were gamekeepers or ridiculous figures or ineffectual wall paper.
In any case, Music of the Heart is a first-class movie. I have not seen Small Wonders, so I cannot tell how faithfully MOTH develops it -- but I have the feeling that scriptwriter Pamela Gray and the director have stuck close to the documentary, with a few changes. (From a tiny picture I located the real Roberta is definitely a brunette). The feature is convincing throughout, with warmth and sentiment not exploited to the hilt.
In my audience no one wept audibly, but eighty-one percent of the viewers had moist eyes. (The margin of error is 3 %). My only criticism is that there is just a tiny bit of background given for Roberta. Her presence is alive and lively; her past is nebulous..
Roberta Guaspari, a mother of two boys, is ditched by her husband for one of the couple's close female friends. Roberta takes on a dumb store job, meets old school chum Brian who sends her to his friend Janet, a school principal. I'll omit general developments as well as details so as not to undo the pleasures of discovery --except that the movie wraps up with a large group of Roberta's kids playing in Carnegie Hall along with such fiddle greats as Itzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern, Arnold Steinhardt and several others.
All the actors are exceptionally good. Angela Bassett, who shared top billing with Eddie Murphy is Wes Craven's Vampire in Brooklyn is, additionally, gorgeous at 41. Gloria Estefan whom I knew only as a singer, has a perfectly performed supporting role.
On the screen, Aidan Quinn has always had a most likable persona. He can also be differentiated from others, an exception today when too many faces are interchangeable and semi-anonymous. It was a good move not to make too big a deal of his relationship with Roberta, and to have Quinn vanish for a couple of big stretches. The same non-hammering of several supporting characters is also a clever decision. It allows concentration on Roberta, her pupils and her struggles -- time well spent and never dull.
And Merryl Streep? Now 50 yet entirely credible as a woman in her late 30s, she is a marvel. Let me mention an apocryphal story. In the 19th century, a famous Polish actress came to Paris. She was received like a queen. Appearing on the Opera's stage, she declaimed some things in Polish. The Who's Who audience did not know this language, but the lady was so great that she had them all moved to tears and applauding wildly. Later it was disclosed that the actress had recited the Polish alphabet, and La Marseillaise, the French National anthem. Streep could do the same.
For this movie she also learned to play the violin, from scratch (an apt expression in this case). Add this to her past feats, and you get not merely the Woman with a Thousand Faces, and Accents, but of a thousand capabilities too.
MOTH, on top of its other plusses, quietly yet firmly stands as a social triumph for race relations. The children, young and older, their parents, the overall milieu in Black and Hispanic Harlem, and so on, come in all sizes, flavors and ethnic backgrounds. Yet there are no sides formed, no racial conflicts, no mentions of prejudice. Striking a realistic note is the mother of black child who first rebels at the incursion of a Whitey teacher who does irrelevant white music. But Roberta wins her over.
The commonplace element of drugs and violence is played way down too. There is no X-rated language. Not that the film has been bowdlerized. Roberta has ex-cons working on the dilapidated house she bought, but furious at their methods, incapacity, and drinking, she fires them all. A student simply tells of her dad hitting her mother. Otherwise, there are no goody-goody passages in this early contender for the next set of Oscars.
This is indeed a feelgood movie, but with natural, realistic feelgoodness. We can use this in these rather cynical movie-days.