Wes Craven -- purveyor of fine horror movies, including A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven's New Nightmare, and the Scream trilogy -- has apparently decided to go "legit." And with Music of the Heart, he has done so with a vengeance.
The film's only death is the result of a drive-by shooting, not a decadent serial killer; the worst nightmare is that a school music program may lose its funding; and the sharpest fingernails aren't on Freddy Krueger's stainless-steel digits but on preteens who keep forgetting that it's hard to play the violin without constant trimming. It's hard to imagine that the bluenoses who hate horror films will get bent out of shape over this excessive display of on-screen violins.
Pamela Gray's screenplay is based on Allan Miller and Susan Kaplan's Oscar-nominated 1996 documentary Small Wonders, which told the story of Roberta Guaspari-Tzavaras, a teacher who created a violin program for public school students in East Harlem and found a way to keep her work going, even after budget cuts threatened the program's future. It was a wonderful film, but much of its impact had to do with its realness. To transfer its uplifting content into dramatized form is to flirt with sentimentality -- a flirtation Craven hasn't in the least shied away from.
When we meet Roberta (Meryl Streep), she is recovering from the breakup of her marriage. Her Navy husband has gone off with another woman, leaving her to look after her two sons, 7-year-old Nick (Michael Angarano, replaced at a later age by Charlie Hofheimer) and 5-year-old Lexi (Henry Dinhofer, later Kieran Culkin). When she needs to get a job, an old high school chum (Aidan Quinn) puts her in touch with Janet Williams (Angela Bassett), principal of an East Harlem public school. Roberta convinces Williams to give her a shot at teaching violin to elementary school kids; that Roberta herself will provide the 50 needed violins is no small factor.
The film divides neatly into two parts: The first covers Roberta's experiences with her first group of students, from their initial reluctance through their training and up to their first public recital; exactly halfway through the film, we leap ahead 10 years, when Roberta must find a way to save her program from budget cuts.
It's hard to decide which segment is more predictable. Despite a bunch of little dramatic forays into other issues -- the death of a student, the romantic problems of a single mother, the effect of the marital breakup on the kids -- Craven and Gray have cleaved closely to the ancient formula for this kind of inspirational story. We're not just talking Mr. Holland's Opus here; at times, Music of the Heart even evokes memories of such schmaltzy 1930s Deanna Durbin films as One Hundred Men and a Girl, not to mention all the "Hey, kids! Let's put on a show!" romps.
In fact, at times Music of the Heart is so uplifting you want to puke. Problems come up, everybody works together toward a solution, there's a group hug, and we dissolve to the next episode.
Surely there's a way to put such familiar material up on the screen without lapsing into clichés; but Craven doesn't find it. When Roberta is so discouraged that she's about to give up teaching, one of her students announces she wants to quit the class: "You shouldn't quit something just because it's hard," Roberta tells her. The implied "Aha!" couldn't be more obvious if the filmmakers had inserted an animated light bulb over Roberta's head.
As strong-willed Roberta takes personal charge of the renovation of her new home, someone chuckles: "She does things her way...as usual." And when a little girl has trouble with her violin stance because of a brace on her leg, it doesn't require psychic ability to know that Itzhak Perlman is going to be invoked as an example of how to triumph against the odds.
To that you can add a romping-in-Central-Park montage, a shot of It's a Wonderful Life on TV, slo-mo climaxes accompanied by explicitly noble underscoring, and a final credit-sequence ballad in the blandest Disney tradition. No cinematic platitude has gone unplundered. When Perlman, Isaac Stern, and a bunch of other classical luminaries show up playing themselves (as well as their fiddles), it really is the '30s all over again -- "If only we could get Jascha Heifetz aware that the school is in trouble!" Check out the 1939 They Shall Have Music (aka Melody of Youth, aka Ragged Angels) -- any one of which titles would have fit Music of the Heart, since they're more or less the same movie.
This is not to say that, within the ambitions of the form, Craven hasn't done his job well. Music of the Heart is a multihankie inspirational heart-warmer -- a sharper The Natural, Rocky gone Bach-y. But why would he want to do this particular job? Just to prove he can step outside the horror genre? Why make a mawkish, "serious" film when you're capable of making wonderful horror movies?
As for Streep, well, she does things her way...as usual. Her performance is perfect, but we've seen her go through these paces before. And she's not really the best casting for the part. To understand how Roberta motivates her students, we need to see some charm. And on-screen charm has always been one of Streep's weak suits: You can't fake it through sheer power of technique.
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