Music of the Heart tells a terrific story of passion, music, and success. The problem with this film is that director Wes Craven is so intent on telling the story, its very seamlessness becomes a drawback. In short, this movie is too much Hollywood and not enough grit.
The film is based on the life and career of Roberta Guaspari, a violin teacher in East Harlem (a story previously told in the Academy Award-nominated documentary, Small Wonders). Craven’s fictionalized version begins as Roberta discovers that her husband has gone, leaving her with two young sons to raise. A gifted violinist, Roberta had squashed her musical aspirations in deference to her husband’s career in the Navy. But now that she desperately needs a job, an old school friend, Brian (Aidan Quinn) pushes Roberta to rekindle her passion for the violin by teaching it. Brian knows a public school principal in Harlem (Angela Bassett), who begrudgingly gives Roberta a job. It’s tough going at first, but gradually she wins over the kids, and the violin instruction program takes off. Jump forward ten years, to the present, when, ironically, Roberta’s program is a huge success at the same time that it’s threatened by budgetary constraints.
Intermingled with the film’s heartwarming “music conquers all” theme, is Roberta’s struggle with romance. I found the subplot of “wooing Roberta” quite distracting, and ultimately irrelevant, cast by the narrative wayside before the musical climax. Similarly, Roberta’s search for a home is another theme that is dropped seemingly mid-stream. While the inclusion of these various stages of Roberta’s life are probably authentic, there’s an almost obligatory feel to their telling, such that the film reads too much like other “teacher makes good” stories to be as effective as it should be. I was reminded of Stand and Deliver or Dangerous Minds too often for comfort. At least, thankfully, Music of the Heart doesn’t sink to the level of Mr. Holland’s Opus with Richard Dreyfuss’s wretched sermonizing.
The film makes a noble attempt to convey accurately a remarkable decade of Roberta’s life in two hours or so, but there just isn’t time to tie all the threads together. Still, it should not be forgotten that this film is based on a true story, and many moments feel like reality rather than a Hollywood version of it. My favorite moment, one that gave me goose bumps, is when the students take the stage and perform for the first time, perfectly in tune and with breath-taking discipline. Music of the Heart conveys well the excitement of bringing kids to music and music to kids.
The great strength of the film, aside from such emotional instances, is Meryl Streep, who manages to give her all to the role of Roberta, and still underplay it. (The mind boggles when imagining what might have been if Madonna, who bowed out when production began, had stayed in the role!) Angela Bassett is not so skillful in the role of Roberta’s boss and principal of the school. She plays the role as if the weight of the world is on her shoulders, and she’s sinking fast. Then there’s Gloria Estefan, who, I thought, spoke both of her lines very well.
So let me be clear, I liked Music of the Heart. It’s a heart-warming film with an important message. I spent ten years of my life as a music educator, and the thought that music education might be cut from the school curricula is inconceivable to me. My beef with Music of the Heart is that I wish it had been less polished and slickly told. A few bumps might help to authenticate the story. Perhaps the final song illustrates by point. The message of the film is that art music should have a place in education today, and yet the credits roll to the strains of ‘N Synch and Gloria Estefan’s pop ballad, liberally splashed with the lyric, “music of my heart.” Why not let the credits roll to some spectacular music of the great masters, dead white men though they be?