Thursday, October 24, 2013

Okay, Fine, I'll Bite, How DO You Get to Carnegie Hall?: "Music of the Heart" (1999)

Wes Craven directs Oscar winner Meryl Streep in a blood drenched tale of classical music, horsehair violin bows, and revenge...okay, not really.

Streep is Roberta, a recently single mother who moves back home with her mother (an underused Cloris Leachman), and decides what she needs to do next. She meets with old friend Brian (Aidan Quinn), and gets a tip about the needs for inner city music teachers, gathers her moxie and spunk, and wins over Principal Williams (Angela Bassett) and begins teaching violin to the youths. At home, her confidence is shattered as she deals with the break-up of her marriage, and Brian's fear of commitment, but her abrasive style at the schools wins the grudging respect of her students. After a few tumultuous relationships, students, and years, her position is threatened, and Roberta must go to extraordinary lengths to both help the kids and keep her job.

Based on a true story, which was documented in the film "Small Wonders," "Music of the Heart" is good. All caps GOOD. Craven took some heat for going outside the horror genre that made his career, and while his direction is not flashy (I am glad he didn't feel the need to make a point with a bunch of bells and whistles), it has no edge, as well. Same with the script by Pamela Gray. The story takes place in inner city New York City schools, but the PG rated film does not show us how these children benefit from the East Harlem Violin Program. When a situations arises (the angry mother, the jerk music teacher, a kid is shot in a drive-by), it is solved by Streep with a heartfelt monologue or hug, and then everyone goes back to rehearsing their violin. A tougher approach to the material might have made the program seem more beneficial to the viewer.

The Oscar familiar cast is pretty good, considering the material. Quinn is always reliable, but he doesn't play a character here, he plays a plot device. We need Brian to show us how Roberta toughens up and changes, and I did not believe he existed in real life for one second. The scenes leading up to a triumphant concert at Carnegie Hall are beautifully done, and Streep is game to carrying the entire film. She isn't as ballsy as the real life Roberta came across in "Small Wonders," but she is still good. A younger Anne Bancroft would have had a field day with this role. Gloria Estefan is also good in her acting debut, but again, isn't given that much to do.

"Music of the Heart" is a treacly, awful title. It sounds like one of those horrible made-for-television films you find on basic cable at noon on a weekday. It's too bad Craven couldn't go the David Cronenberg route, able to parlay a horror career into even more interesting material. Instead, we get GOOD. He, and we, should demand GREAT. Give this one a look, get warm and fuzzy, and move on. (* * * *) out of five stars.