1990s, 2/4, Drama, Review, Wes Craven

Music of the Heart

#10 in my ranking of Wes Craven’s filmography.

Listening to interviews with Wes Craven, he says explicitly, more than once, that he never wanted to be pigeonholed as a horror filmmaker. His primary interest was comedy, actually, and you can see him approach it here and there in his earlier years and especially in the years after A Nightmare on Elm Street when he got the smallest bit of freedom. Well, he got some freedom after the financial successes of the first two Scream films and, in combination with finishing out a contract with Miramax, he decided to tell the real life story of a violin instructor in Harlem who worked with the poor children of the school systems there. It’s a generic, acceptable attempt at a tearjerker that hits no notes particularly well, but functions in a workmanlike way.

Working from a script by Pamela Gray based on a documentary about the real woman, the story follows Roberta Guaspari (Meryl Streep) from her separation and divorce from her Naval officer husband through her creation of the program in an effort to find any job and eventually to her efforts to save the program ten years in when the budget gets cut. It ends up being a very paint by numbers kind of film that tries to capture as much of Roberta’s life over that ten years as possible with no real effort to highlight any particular relationship or aspect of her life. Things just kind of come and go, enter and leave her story, whether they feed the actual story or not. I was kind of looking forward to this film, equating it to a certain extent to The Straight Story, the David Lynch film that sticks out from his filmography so much because it is so materially different from the rest while also being one of his best films. Music of the Heart could have been similar, except that Craven seems to have brought nothing to the table beyond his technical competence.

After a short stint living with her mother (Cloris Leachman), Roberta uses the contact of an old school friend who lives in the city Brian (Aidan Quinn) to meet with Janet Williams (Angela Bassett), a principal in one of the city’s schools. Through demonstration of her ability to teach by carting in her two children to play in her office, she gets a job as a substitute teacher and has the typical troubles one would expect from an unruly class of ten-year-old children given violins. She whittles it down to about half the original size, and they develop. She has typical issues with parents who don’t believe in violins for minority children because there are no minority violinists (the finale includes a couple, and the movie makes no note of the irony), or they’re too busy, or whatever. They’re all challenges that Roberta overcomes with the power of belief and music. Standard stuff.

Then the time jump happens after the first successful concert to ten years later. All of the children are gone. Her own two children get recast, and the challenges are new. It becomes about saving the program through organizing a concert to raise funds, and it’s more of the same kind of challenges that Roberta is able to overcome with the power of belief and music. First it’s getting the kids and parents to sign onto the rigorous practice schedule. Then it’s getting the right location. In the middle of this, her kids try to set her up with a man, Dan (Jay O. Sanders), and that goes nowhere.

One of the curious things about the film is the assumption that people know the names of the great violinists of the 90s. A couple of the names were familiar to me, but not because they were tied to the violin in any way. And yet, they get name dropped and people just react in glee at the idea of receiving help, as though the audience is already in on it. There’s a big concert at Carnegie Hall, there’s a lot of swelling music on the soundtrack as belief and music triumphed, and we get still photos alongside the credits, not of the real Roberta and her students but of Meryl Streep as Roberta and the actor students. Seriously…that’s where you put the real Roberta front and center.

A quick note on Craven’s filmmaking. I’m not exactly the biggest fan, but there’s a particular shot late in the film that points, to me, to Craven’s continued troubles with figuring out how the whole cinema thing works. It’s a small shot that really doesn’t matter that much, but I want to highlight it. As the concert is warming up, we get a series of shots of the crowd. One of them has three people in the frame. To the left is Angela Bassett, to the right is Gloria Estefan as one of the teachers at the school that Roberta had befriended, and in the middle is a teenaged girl we’ve never seen before. Where does the eye go first? To the teenage girl. This is actually the teenaged daughter of Estefan’s character who had gone through Roberta’s program (though we never even saw her as a small child, much less in the later form as a teenager). Outside of the context of sitting next to Estefan in the frame, we would have no idea who this person is, and she is where the eye is drawn first in the frame. It feels like a very basic test of how to place subjects in a frame that Craven, almost twenty-five years into his career, fails at.

Anyway, the film is fine. It’s okay. It’s not bad, and it’s not particularly good. Streep is good in the role that anchors a lot of it, but the storytelling is so fractured across time and subplots that there’s no real digging into anything to can provide emotional catharsis by the end. It’s really the sort of end product I might expect from a television director making one of their first efforts into feature films, and I think it demonstrates some of Wes Craven’s major limits on his abilities. He had visions of doing more than horror, but horror was where his ability seems to have fit best.

Rating: 2/4

6 thoughts on “Music of the Heart”

  1. “Workmanlike” seems to be a very good description of Wes Craven as a film-maker. I haven’t seen this film, but I would imagine the teenager in the three-shot near the end probably had more screen time earlier on, but the relevant part of her story got cut for whatever reason.

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    1. It’s very possible there’s a deleted scene or two with the teenaged daughter, but both other actresses were in both halves of the film and were much more recognizable to the audience because of that. Gloria Estefan should have been in the middle.

      I actually am not sure that workmanlike is a great descriptor of his whole body of work. There’s a whole lot of crap below workmanlike. At his best, he’s workmanlike (I think that’s why Scream works, because he just didn’t screw it up), but most of the time, he’s kind of inept.

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  2. Ironically, one of my favorite movies is ‘Music of the Heart’…but it’s the Japanese anime romance.

    Craven was a huge music fan and his contract with Miramax was structured so he was allowed to make a non-horror film (It was supposed to be a period costume drama actually, in line with Miramax’s formula, but they don’t seem to have enforced that on Craven). And sadly, the ‘one for him’ movie Wes Craven was allowed to make is a boring, drama-free, paint-by-numbers biopic. Mr. Holland’s Opus looks like a masterpiece in comparison.

    There isn’t anything to hate here, though. Just not a lot to love. I won’t even mock the ‘white savior syndrome’ made by Hollywood Liberals. This is the kind of movie that is churned out by the Hallmark channel a dozen times a year, just with a bigger name cast.

    I do like Angela Basset quite a bit, though.

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