Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Music of the Heart

By Marc Savlov

NOVEMBER 1, 1999: 

D: Wes Craven; with Meryl Streep, Aidan Quinn, Angela Bassett, Cloris Leachman, Gloria Estefan, Josh Pais, Jay O. Sanders, Charlie Hofheimer, Kieran Culkin. (PG, 124 min.)

In yet another sign that the End Times are upon us, Craven, a director more known for his frequent use of butcher knives and bullet holes than violin bows and pig-tailed moppets, unveils his first major production not featuring a pile of dead teens and Freddie Krueger. Instead, Music of the Heart spins the true-life tale of New Yorker Roberta Guaspari (Streep) and her battle with that city's public school system to develop a series of comprehensive violin classes for children in the financially strapped district of Harlem. It's a far cry from the director's previous work, but there are similarities that arise, most notably in Craven's rapid-fire pacing. The film manages to span 15 or so years in Guaspari's crusade without being incomprehensible, or overly long, and when it's firing on all cylinders, it's remarkably affecting. When it's not, however, it's just a small step up from annoying. Streep plays the fortysomething Guaspari as an emotionally fractured women who, as the film opens, has lost her military husband to another woman, is attempting to provide for herself and her two young boys, and has moved in with her nagging, domineering mother (Leachman). A passable violinist who has taught her kids to play as well as any, she's told of a local Harlem school that might be able to offer her a position as a music instructor. On the advice of friend and old flame Brian Sinclair, a journalist prone to zipping off to South America at a moment's notice, she applies, is turned down by the school's principal (Bassett), and quickly returns with her kids in tow. The point? If she can teach her own kids, she can damn well teach anyone's. The ploy, unsubtle though it is, works, and the film takes off with the displaced teacher leading a class of misfit, at-risk kids in the basics of the fiddle. The first half of Craven's film is rife with such clichés ­ for a while it threatens to become a tearjerker of the worst sort, as Guaspari clearly is taking on more than anyone could handle (Handel?). Despite these early, formulaic scenes, or perhaps because of them, Craven kicks the proceedings into high gear midway through when he suddenly flash-forwards 10 years into the future and we discover that this Harlem violin renaissance is in jeopardy of falling through the school system's cracks due to ­ wait for it ­ funding cutbacks. Quelle surprise! From here, the film rockets to a rousing conclusion that will surprise nobody, but which nevertheless tugs on those little heartstrings as well as any weeper-lite of late. My chief complaint with Music of the Heart is that Craven seems to have buried virtually all of his style in the simple telling of a very straightforward tale. There's nary a sign of the director's wild flights of fancy; better to have had, oh, Peter Jackson helm the film à la Heavenly Creatures' magical realism. Anything to step away from Craven's bombastic literalism. That personal quibble aside, the film is full of nuanced performances (Streep in particular) and wonderfully enveloping music. Not exactly what we'd hoped for, but no worse, I think, than could be expected.

2.5 Stars

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