Even Meryl Streep can't save horror flick director Wes Craven's misguided attempt to switch genres.
Thursday, October 28, 1999
Just because a story is true doesn''t mean it will automatically make a great movie. Believing that flawed logic is horror director Wes Craven''s (Last House on the Left, Scream) first mistake. His second mistake may be in abandoning his successful horror-flick niche and tackling this heart-wrenching dramatic tale, the true story of Harlem violin teacher Roberta Guaspari.
Guaspari came to widespread attention when her inner-city music teaching program was depicted in the 1996 Academy Award-nominated documentary, Small Wonders. Miramax head Harvey Weinstein liked the documentary enough to bring in screenwriter Pamela Gray (A Walk On the Moon) to write a draft for Music of the Heart. Gray''s first draft screenplay was prematurely accepted as a shooting script for the movie.
Patronizing and pedantic, Music of the Heart attempts to be all things to all people, and in so doing loses dramatic focus.
The movie begins with Guaspari (Meryl Streep) as an emotional basket-case after the desertion of her husband. It shows her moving toward self-sufficiency by teaching violin in an elementary school in Harlem, while single-handedly raising two boys and gaining enough self-confidence to get rid of her non-committal boyfriend Brian (Aidan Quinn). She renovates a newly purchased house and works like a fiend teaching troubled kids to play a very difficult musical instrument.
As the violin program itself becomes the focal point of the story, Guaspari''s growing sense of independence is ignored in favor of a general paean to the uneven musical success that some 1,400 of her students enjoy. Even the significance of the students'' mastery of the violin goes neglected. Did any of Guaspari''s students go on to become working composers or musicians? That issue is never addressed.
This film is laden with problems. When the story jumps ahead ten years, none of the actors are able to make the age transition believably. The make-up is insufficient, and the performances all leave much to be desired. Sobering events like the death of one of Guaspari''s students in a drive-by shooting are trivialized in scenes that lack emotional weight. The film''s child actors are ill-equipped to give Streep performances she can act against; they leave her alone on the screen to carry the scenes by herself.
For the most part, Craven and his production team blindly follow Streep in a film cursed by an obviously underwritten script. Despite Streep''s best efforts at handling unwieldy scene shifts as a struggling single mother/violin teacher with a heart of gold, even her prodigious acting ability is crushed beneath the weight of a poorly told story. However, Streep does make formidable use of her freshly learned violin skills in warm and convincing scenes showing her teaching unruly children to play the violin.
When Guaspari''s successful yet financially troubled music program is saved by a benefit performance by Isaac Stern and Itzhak Perlman at New York''s Carnegie Hall, the ensuing communal jubilation reeks with pat sentimentality and an imitation of relevance.
If "drama" is the genre Craven was aspiring to, he missed the mark completely. Music of the Heart is a sadly insulting attempt to tell one amazing woman''s very dramatic story; everyone involved, except for the main actors, seems to have forgotten that it should have been, indeed, her story.