Part biopic of a singer-songwriter who waits most of her career to be heard, and part paean to a golden decade of American pop music, Allison Anders’ “Grace of My Heart” is an ambitious comedy-drama that is energetic and entertaining, even if it loses steam in its disharmonious final act. Covering the late ’50s through to 1970, the film boasts a terrific song score written in the style of that era and amusing performances by a strong cast. Commercially, this uneven but enjoyable pic looks to be an unlikely chart-topper, but Gramercy might drum up a following with women and retro music fans.
Illeana Douglas would seem an admirably unconventional choice to play the gifted songwriter and later singer (reportedly modeled on Carole King) who leaves behind her wealthy Philadelphia family to pursue a music career in New York and endures a string of personal disappointments before finally finding her voice.
The slightly off-kilter humor the actress brought to pics like “To Die For” and “Grief” adds much to her role here. But she is less than convincing as a big-voiced songstress not least of all due to some poorly lip-synched numbers and despite her warmly engaging performance, she seems underequipped to carry the film, especially in its more dramatic developments.
Douglas plays Edna Buxton, an heiress to a steel fortune whose domineering society-matron mother is willing to indulge her singing ambitions provided she wear pristine white chiffon and sing inspirational anthems. In the film’s catchy opening seg, she instead slips on a little black dress and warbles her way to first prize in a talent contest. But the resulting New York recording contract turns out to be an empty promise.
A year later, she breaks down at one of many unsuccessful auditions, being told by the producer that girl singers are a dead commodity and male vocalists have taken over. But the quality of her songwriting steers her to music-biz manager Joel Millner (John Turturro), who changes her name to Denise Waverly and gives her work penning hit tunes for his popular crooners and promises her the chance to do her own songs when the time is right.
The often cliched feel of Edna/Denise’s turbulent personal journey functions as a real-life parallel to the lyrics she writes. She draws on the man trouble of her black singer friend Doris (Jennifer Leigh Warren) to write her a hit, and then hooks up professionally and romantically with idealist Howard Caszatt (Eric Stoltz) to write songs with a social message. But the controversial tunes are banned from the airwaves, and Joel decides to team her instead with sleek British tunesmith Cheryl Steed (Patsy Kensit).
Following their marriage and the birth of a child, Denise discovers Howard with another woman, putting an end to the union and inspiring a hit breakup song. An affair follows with a married music reporter (Bruce Davison), and its painful conclusion sparks a tortured torch song that Joel decides should be her own debut recording. The single flops , but it lands her in the arms of producer and surf music star Jay Phillips (Matt Dillon), whose kinship with Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson extends right down to his penchant for the Theremin.
Denise moves with Jay out to Malibu in 1967, but his increasingly paranoid behavior compromises both his career and their relationship, eventually culminating in his suicide. Heading for a commune to meditate on her loss, Denise emerges from grief to find new strength and the will to sing her own songs.
The shift in focus of the California section to a secondary character, and the inevitable hokiness of some of the hippie-period dialogue combine to stall the film’s engine until Joel returns to provide a link with the New York years.
Given that much of the action takes place in NYC’s legendary Brill Building, Anders’ failure to make more of the film’s setting reps an inexplicable shortcoming. The building itself is rarely seen in exterior shots (stand-in for the site was the Pacific Electric Building in L.A.), and while its halls appear to be bulging with singers, songwriters and record producers, there is no real sense that this was a hit factory spawning hundreds of careers and a whole range of popular sounds.
There is much to enjoy from the actors, however. Somewhat heavy-handedly disguised in a bad toupee and a beatnik beard, Turturro gives credibility and a great deal of humor to the physically caricatured Joel, who is presented as a work-focused, insensitive hustler, only gradually revealing the honesty and loyalty that also drive him. Playing a weak-willed womanizer with delusions of integrity, Stoltz also scores, especially in his hysterical introduction, pogo-ing around a dance floor. Dillon’s is the most problematically conceived role, but he brings pathos and tenderness that help minimize the damage. Best of the many supporting stints is a brief appearance by Bridget Fonda as a big-haired, bubble-gum pop star. Enlisted to write a tune for her, Denise and Cheryl stumble on an emotional moment between the singer (believed to be based on Leslie Gore) and her female lover, which inspires “My Secret Love.” The interaction between the four women during the recording session for the song is one of the film’s warmest moments and one that shows Anders in the kind of intimate territory where she appears most at home. Elsewhere, the writer-director seems at times to have a rather uncertain feel for the material and is not always successful in making this slice of pop-cultural history appear completely real.
Aside from the Malibu spell, the film moves along at an agreeable pace, with the trio of editors led by exec producer Martin Scorsese’s regular cutter Thelma Schoonmaker weaving the action through a sprawling arc of time and incident. Production values are bright, hip and colorful.
The real asset, however, is the music. The toe-tapping songs include compositions by contempo artists such as Elvis Costello, Dave Stewart and Los Lobos working with veterans like Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager and Gerry Goffin.