“Music of the Heart”, based on the true story of tireless East Harlem violin teacher Roberta Guaspari, who teaches violin lessons and makes strange bedfellows of two-time Academy Award Winner Meryl Streep (“One True Thing”) and horrormeister Wes Craven (“Scream”). These two diverse talents masterfully bring to life the inspirational story that was first told in the Oscar-nominated documentary “Small Wonders” in 1995. And though the film covers familiar ground in the ‘teacher does good’ genre and offers few real surprises, Streep’s Oscar-worthy performance and Craven’s assured direction make this the feel-good movie of the year.
Any child can learn to play the violin.
The story opens in 1980, where Roberta Guaspari (Streep) finds herself heartbroken and alone with her two sons in tow after her husband runs off with her best friend. Needing a job, Roberta packs her kids into a beat-up Honda Civic and heads to East Harlem in the hopes of teaching the violin. Despite a lack of formal teaching experience on her resume, Roberta convinces Janet Williams (Angela Bassett of “How Stella Got Her Groove Back”), the brassy principal of an alternative public school, to hire her as a substitute teacher in the school’s music program. With no money in the school’s budget to buy instruments, Roberta offers to supply them from her own personal collection of fifty child-sized violins that she has collected over the years.
I think I know these students… they’re attention span doesn’t go past ‘do-re-mi’. Maybe on a good day I can get them to ‘fa’.
Roberta soon learns that she has her work cut out for her. Faced with trying to teach undisciplined students a difficult instrument, the indifference and disdain of the other teachers, resistance from parents who don’t approve of her aggressive methods, and trouble with her sons on the home front, she comes close to packing it in on numerous occasions. Fortunately, Roberta finds a number of allies that give her the strength to continue on, including an old friend from high school (Aidan Quinn of “Practical Magic”) and a fellow teacher (singer Gloria Estefan in her acting debut) who sees the good that Roberta is accomplishing.
What’s the matter?
We heard you got fired.
The film then fast-forwards ten years into the time period covered by the documentary “Small Wonders”, where Roberta’s fledgling string program has grown to serve three schools and requires a lottery system due to overwhelming demand for the program’s 150 spaces. Despite the hard-earned success, Roberta has the rug pulled out from under her when budget cuts cancel funding for her program, essentially putting out of a job, despite having taught over 1400 inner city kids the violin. Exhibiting the tenacity that has sustained her for the past decade, Roberta marshals her students (both past and present), friends, and the media to save the music program from cancellation. It is here that “Music of the Heart” truly takes off, blossoming into a gripping drama that culminates into a heartfelt finale set in Carnegie Hall that will have you cheering in the aisles.
The real Roberta Guaspari (from SmallWonders)
If you have seen “Mr. Holland’s Opus”, “Stand and Deliver”, or even “Dangerous Minds”, then you will find that “Music of the Heart” does not deviate far from the formula– everything you expect to happen does happen. However, where this latest entry shines is in the portrayal of Roberta’s character, whose flaws and insecurities generate the requisite drama and suspense to propel the story along. In addition to dramatizing Roberta’s struggle in the classroom, the script also deals with her difficulties at home as a single mother trying to raise her two sons, providing an earnest glimpse into who she is and what makes her tick. Streep, who even learned to play the violin for the role, effortlessly steps into Roberta’s shoes, handling the transformation from uncertain divorcee to the resolute woman who eventually inspires others with her love of music and the violin.
Following in the footsteps of Sam Raimi (“For Love of the Game”), Wes Craven steps out of his usual horror/slasher fare and does a remarkable job with the material, establishing a new trajectory for his directing career. Craven treats the material with great sensitivity and care, and he avoids the temptation of using blatant sentimentality to push the audience’s buttons. In fact, a number of the film’s more melodramatic moments, such as Roberta’s older son (Michael Angarano) trying to come to terms with his father not coming back, are handled in a surprisingly low-key manner without the overt emotional manipulation seen in films such as “Stepmom”. Also, considering how much material is covered in the film’s two-hour running time, “Music of the Heart” never feels rushed or lagging as it details the important milestones of Roberta’s career while keeping in mind the economy of storytelling.
Praise must also be given to the film’s supporting cast, with the exception of Quinn and Estefan, whose underwritten characters mar an otherwise superb film. Bassett acquits herself admirably as the ‘tough-as-nails’ principal who becomes an unexpected ally, while Anganaro is credible and genuine as confused older son Nick at the age of 7. One pleasant surprise was Josh Pais (“A Civil Action”), who provides some comic relief as the egotistical head of the school’s music program. The film also includes a number of cameos, a virtual who’s who of the violin world playing themselves, including Itzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern, Arnold Steinhardt, and Mark O’Connor.
In a movie-going season dominated by rampant nihilism and cynicism, “Music of the Heart” is a refreshing alternative, a solid film that inspires and entertains. Even jaded filmgoers who have had their fill of the ‘teacher does good’ genre will find much to like in this latest entry. With Streep’s superb performance, Craven’s skillful directing, beautiful orchestrations, and an uplifting story, “Music of the Heart” is undeniably one of the must-see films of the fall season.
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