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Music of the Heart

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 29 October 1999


Directed by Wes Craven

Starring Meryl Streep, 
Aidan Quinn, Cloris Leachman, 
Gloria Estefan, Josh Pais, 
Charlie Hofheimer, Kieran Culkin, 
Jean-Luke Figueroa, Jay O. Sanders
 and Angela Bassett

Written by Pamela Gray, 
based on the 1996 documentary Small Wonders 

Music of the Heart has certainly one of the more memorable scenes of the year. Roberta Guaspari (Meryl Streep), teaching violin to a group of elementary school students in an East Harlem school, occasionally resorts to some unorthodox methods to get the results she wants, such as telling the students that their playing of a rudimentary piece of music was so awful that, if their parents heard it in a concert, they would be "sick." "Do you want to make your parents sick?" she asks.

It gets the students' attention, as well as that of one of their parents, who tells the school principal that she does not send her child to school to receive "abuse". When next in class, the students complain to Roberta that her behavior seems too strange, that she seems "weirder" than she usually is. They're disturbed because she's being too nice; they want her to be rough on them. "All right," Roberta replies. "Just don't tell your parents." (I asked my father, who taught elementary school for over 15 years, if any of his students ever pleaded with him to be rougher on them. Unfortunately, he told me, not one of them did.)

Music of the Heart, the first straight dramatic film in years from scare-film director Wes Craven, is based on a 1996 documentary feature, "Small Wonders", which showed how the real Roberta Guaspari taught violin to inner city students. (I have not seen the film, so I cannot report whether the above-mentioned scene in Craven's film is based on fact.) When, after 10 years, Guaspari's program fell victim to public education cuts, a benefit concert was organized and held at Carnegie Hall, where Guaspari's students performed onstage alongside preeminent musicians who volunteered their services. (This also inspires, in the new film, what has to be one of the lines of the year: "Itzhak? It's Arnold," says Arnold Steinhardt after he picks up the phone to call his friend Itzhak Perlman. "You know, the other fiddler.")

Already dubbed "Fiddler N the Hood" by one critic, Music of the Heart starts out pretty much like a T.V. movie-of-the-week: Roberta, suddenly single mother with two young sons, blows into an inner city school and, over the objections of the school's tenured but sniveling music teacher (Josh Pais plays the thankless part), nabs a chance to teach violin to the students, who, after some initial resistance, are enriched by the experience. Roberta takes no guff, and earns the students' respect. She even wins over some of the parents. And when she starts a romantic relationship with an old school friend, now a writer (Aidan Quinn, looking like a wet dog), but when he starts vacillating over whether to make a commitment, she lays down the line with him, too.

The film tends to alternate between scenes that are dramatically simplistic (Roberta's sons make the move to an urban neighborhood without hardly any fuss, and they even get a dog), ones that seem idealized (there seem to be a lot of receptive, upturned children's faces), and ones that get the details just right. Roberta's classes are often shown made up of students three-quarters of whom are paying attention, while the other fourth are goofing-around and require almost all of their teacher's attention. When Roberta asks one student, who compulsively snaps her fingers, if she likes having people snapping their fingers around her, the girl replies, "Yes!" The students are fidgety, have short attention spans, and problems at home that interfere with their work at school. Roberta is shown not having the answer to everything every time; sometimes, she's shown pushing her students too hard, chiding them, playing pranks on them, while at other times pulling back from responding because of her own limitations. As she tells one student's mother, she's not some uppity crusader who's come down to a racially-mixed neighborhood to save the underprivileged kids, but a single parent who needed the job.

Meryl Streep, who replaced another actress in this role at the last minute, took a crash-course on learning to play the violin, and I can state for a fact that she is not faking it when we see her play on-screen. She is said to have been nervous when she took the stage alongside several actual violin virtuosos for the recreation of the Carnegie Hall concert, and if you look closely, you can catch just a little bit of it in her expression before she begins playing the final piece. Along with actual former students of Guaspari's program, the violinists who appear range from Steinhardt, Perlman, and Isaac Stern, to country music fiddler Mark O'Connor and Joshua Bell, who played the brilliant solos for John Corrigliano's music for "The Red Violin". That's quite a lineup.

Streep has never been a performer who flashes her emotional responses to the audience during a scene; she always works towards something more nuanced, more emotionally "true". In the 20 years since her translucent profile emerged from the dark during the opening shot of Kramer vs. Kramer, I've only seen her give three bum performances: the neurotic psychiatric patient in Still of the Night who wrestles cigarettes into her mouth and then forgets to light them; Ironweed, in which, with the singular exception of her singing, "He's Me Pal", she seemed exhausted and annoyingly mannered, along with the fact that she and Jack Nicholson simply did not click together as a team; and (though I may receive some complaints on this) Defending Your Life, in which, trying to be lighthearted, she seemed to goof her way through her part.

As Roberta, Streep gets the way her character's Italian-American hard-edgedness flares up in her speech and in moments of confrontation. She does some wonderful work with Angela Bassett -- furious, again (Bassett sometimes seems like the angriest woman in American films), but giving a convincing, terrific performance as a school principal who must hold a million things together every minute of the day and still be more than understanding and insightful about everything she has to contend with. And the filmmakers have pulled off a neat dramatic and casting coup: Roberta is eventually paired up (with some help from her teenaged sons, in one of the best scenes in the film) with a man, a solid but innately decent journalism professor played by Jay O. Sanders, a performer who projects exactly all the patient, supportive, likable qualities that we can see would make him the right kind of guy to come into Roberta's life, at that moment. (Along with Aidan Quinn, Gloria Estefan seems to have been cast for marquee value, appearing in some low-key scenes as a teacher who works at the same school as Roberta. Estefan also contributes a closing song, performed with N'Sync. And, yes, there is info in the end credits on how to contact Guaspari's music program, Opus 118.)

At first, it's a little difficult to ascertain what Roberta is getting out of all this work (aside from the satisfaction of having helped so many kids who might not have had the chance otherwise to be able to appreciate music). The film turns out to be about how a person comes to enjoy something that they've worked terribly hard at doing. So, the picture turns out not to be so square, after all. And, in some ways, the picture, uneven as it may be, is more enjoyable than one that's more polished. Near the end, Roberta is shown first walking out on the empty stage at Carnegie Hall, and while looking around is met by a silver-haired, quietly animate man in a blue sweater -- Isaac Stern himself, who says, "I'm so glad to welcome you to this house." He then points to the upper auditorium and says that, in the emptiness, one can hear the resonances of past performances -- Tchaikovsky, who conducted the opening concert, there, and Yasha Heifetz, Rachmaninov, and Vladimir Horowitz. It is a magical scene, and, if you care at all about classical music, one that can't help but make you melt. 

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