Music of the Heart
Directed by Wes Craven
This new film features the unlikely pairing of actress Meryl Streep and director Wes Craven. Streep, who is best known for her deft and subtle characterizations in serious dramatic films, seems an unusual casting choice in a film directed by Craven.
Craven broke into film with his 16MM independent film (later transferred to 35MM and shown theatrically) Last House On The Left. His career to this point has been based on a string of horror hits from The Hills Have Eyes series and the original Nightmare on Elm Street to the recent Scream series. The combination of Craven and Streep - especially under its more obscure original title 50 Violins - piqued curiosity.
The finished project proves to be a radical departure for Craven, directing what is a more or less typical vehicle for Streep. Craven brings production skills honed in the formulaic world of one genre film to another - what used to be called the "women's film" - and acquits himself adequately, if without much distinction.
The film is based on a true story: the struggle of Roberta Guaspari (Streep), a single mother with two young sons, to establish and maintain a music program within disadvantaged schools of New York City's multi-ethnic ghetto, Harlem. Filming a true story - especially when it is not a documentary - is always difficult.
The story-telling of Hollywood film is stuck in the dramatic convention of crisis. This story could have been told as a character study of Guaspari, or it could have been told as the story of the day-to-day struggles of establishing and developing a major arts education program in inner-city schools. Here, instead, the payoff is a clichˇ: the saving of the program from the brink of destruction. The fact that it actually happened doesn't make the way in which it is told any less hackneyed.
The fault lies mainly with the script, which echoes conventions from every classroom drama from To Sir With Love, and Room 222 to the recent Mr. Holland's Opus, of which it is dangerously reminiscent - not to say derivative. Screenwriter Pamela Gray, who wrote last year's quirky, character-driven Walk On The Moon, seems to have succumbed to the tendency of genre films to revert to formula. To be fair to her, as a second-time writer, she may have been under irresistible pressure from the director and the producers to develop a script to their specifications.
At any rate, the result is a very professionally made film with some effective and touching scenes but few original insights. The character development is stereotypic: the spurned wife collapses, rallies (with the support of her feisty mom), finds her feet, develops her skills, and goes on to create and then defend a program based on her ideals, while making a life for herself and raising her two sons to become fine young men.
The only element missing from the formula is the idealized "supportive but independent" male figure. This is probably the result of someone's insistence that the factual integrity of the real story be retained. Romance is hinted at and one dramatic scene revolves around Roberta's ultimatum to her lover that he either make a commitment or get out, but on the heels of that scene the story blithely skips ten years ahead as if nothing worth recording happened in that time.
Women may or may not need men, but it is undeniable that having or not having a deep, loving, intimate relationship with another adult makes an enormous difference in one's life. The film glosses over this area of Roberta's story as if it were inconsequential. It focuses on events - the plot - to the exclusion of character.
This protects the real Roberta's privacy, but what makes stories truly interesting is the people who live them. By denying us insight into many parts of Roberta's private character the script separates her from us, lessens our empathy for her struggles, and makes her triumph, when it comes, much less moving than it might have been - much more like a "Hollywood ending."
Streep is called upon to carry the picture. She has gotten to be like a home-run hitter. Producers have come to rely on her to bring in the fans, no matter how weak the team is. She struggles bravely and with more success than one might expect, but in the end she can't make a deeply compelling character out of the few good bits and pieces she's given.
She plays the character with a quiet, desperate determination rather than feminist bravado, but the glimpses we get of her loneliness, her confusion, her sacrifice, her self-doubt are too few and too quickly passed over to provide any real tension in this predictable chronicle of movement from success to success.
Streep tries to convey unspoken aspects of the character through body language, tone of voice and the spin she gives lines with inflection and facial expression, but she just doesn't have a full enough experience of the character to work with. In individual scenes, she can make the character sympathetic and believable, but the emotional truths are few and far between, and the script rushes her on before they have time to sink in.
We never see, for instance, any of the anguish Roberta may have felt for the students from her program who may not have succeeded, may have gone on to the lives of drugs and early death that are too often the story for East Harlem's youngsters. We catch a glimpse of her older son's anger and confusion about the break-up of his family, but a two or three sentence conversation seems to settle things for him - and Roberta as well - once and for all.
When we see him again - after the ten lost years at 17 - he is a well-adjusted, successful high school student. But we don't witness any trace of his confusion or anger, nor the dynamics between them that has brought his transformation about, and that makes the transition emotionally meaningless.
It's this lack of authentic emotional detail, the dark and difficult side of character and life-events, that ultimately leaves the film seeming like a by-the-numbers exercise in feel-good bio-pic. From the outlines of the story, it is clear that Ms. Guaspari's struggle was a trying one as well as empowering and enriching, but the dramatic power of the experiences is not effectively conveyed.
Craven's direction is the biggest surprise - or perhaps not. He has made a career out of a formula that eschews real feeling for the substitute thrill of ersatz fear. When he can't keep this movie going by shocking or startling the audience, he doesn't know what to do. He has spent so long in the manipulative and convention driven world of genre horror that it shouldn't be any wonder that he doesn't have much facility for evoking real emotions.
He is technically proficient and this film has a slick, professional gloss. His work with the actors is unexceptional. He gets good work from Streep and Aidan Quinn, but they are both talented professionals, so that is mostly just a matter of not getting in their way. Good conventional camera work provides a clear view of the action, but there is little imaginative use of the evocative possibilities of the medium.
The final scene, encompassing massed violinists standing in a static line stretched out across the stage at New York City's Carnegie Hall, is a film-maker's nightmare. To invest such a composition with the life and rhythm film demands is a challenging problem, and Craven is not up to it.
The "concert film," of which this is a fifteen-minute mini-version, is one of the most difficult to make. The rapport between performer and audience and among the audience, as well as the acoustic and physical presence of performers, audience and hall themselves - which are the essence of the live concert - have proved elusive of capture on film. Craven, with his narrow range of experience, was not able to evoke it - although to his credit there are a few brief flashes.
Music of the Heart is a very nice, very nicely-made film. It tells a very nice, uplifting story about very nice people (with one comedic exception, and even he is a two-dimensional stereotype of pettiness). There is nothing wrong with that, except that it doesn't ring true in human experience. The emphasis on events over people, on unrelenting heart-warmingness over sometimes bleak reality, takes the human dimension - the real heart - out of the story and leaves a rather hollow and unsatisfying shell.
That's my take on it. What's yours?