Jay Phillips Matt Dillon
Roward Caszatt Eric Stoltz
John Murray Bruce Davison
Cheryl Steed Patsy Kensit
Doris Shelley Jennifer Leigh Warren
Joel Millner John Turturro
Matthew Lewis Chris Isaak
Kelly Porter Bridget Fonda
Voice of Guru Dave Peter Fonda
Part biopic of a singer-song-writer 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 IIeart” 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 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 charttopper, 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 and endures a string of personal disappointments before finding her voice.
The off-kilter humor the actress brought to such pics as “Grief” and “To Die For” adds much to her role here. But she is less than convincing as a big-voiced songstress — not least due to some poorly lipsynched numbers — and despite her warmly engaging performance, she seems underequipped to carry the film, especially in its more dramatic developments.
Douglas plays Edna Buxton, 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.
A year later, she breaks down at one of many unsuccessful auditions, being told by the producer that girl singers are a dead commodity. But the quality of her songwriting steers her to N.Y. music-biz manager Joel Millner (John Turturro), who changes her name to Denise Waverly, 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. A subsequent affair with a married music reporter (Bruce Davison) sparks a torch song that becomes her debut recording. The single flops but 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 to Malibu in 1967. 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’s exterior is rarely seen (stand-in for the site was the Pacific Electric Building in L.A.), and there is no real sense that this was a hit factory spawning hundreds of careers.
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 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 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 among the four women during a recording session is one of pic’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 an uncertain feel for the material and is not always successful in making this slice of pop-cultural history feel 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 Schoon-maker, weaving the action through a sprawling are of time and incident. Production values are 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 Burt Bacharach. Carole Bayer Sager and Gerry Goffin.