Horrormeister Wes Craven makes an abrupt U-turn with “Music of the Heart,” a gloriously sentimental true-life drama in which Meryl Streep offers another indelible portrayal, this time as a deserted wife who manages to make a fresh start in life by teaching violin to underprivileged kids in East Harlem. Building to a re-creation of the famous Carnegie Hall Fiddlefest in which the children played alongside such luminaries as Isaac Stern and Itzhak Perlman, pic is not for cynics but, if given the usual formidable Miramax marketing push, is likely to perform solidly in class houses worldwide.
Based on a real-life drama, which formed the basis of the 1996 Academy Award-nominated documentary “Small Wonders,” by Allen and Lana Miller, “Music of the Heart” recalls famous, and successful, pics in which a dedicated teacher was able to break through to classrooms of bored or antisocial children — think of “Blackboard Jungle,” “To Sir With Love” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” just for starters. New pic covers no fresh ground; the dramatic arc is wholly predictable and no opportunity for wrenching emotional scenes is avoided. This will undoubtedly turn off many reviewers, but the essential truth of the story validates the approach, and audiences are certain to respond to the uplifting saga.
In 1988, music-loving Navy wife Roberta Guaspari (Streep) was abruptly dumped by her husband, who left her and their two sons, ages 7 and 5, for another woman. Utterly traumatized, the middle-class Roberta tearfully keeps hoping he’ll return until forced by her acerbic mother (Cloris Leachman) to re-enter the work force, which she does as a department store gift-wrapper. There she reacquaints with old school friend Brian Sinclair (Aidan Quinn), who recalls her childhood love of the violin and arranges an introduction with Janet Williams (Angela Bassett), the principal of a school in East Harlem. Roberta proposes she teach violin within the school’s music department, and is even able to supply the instruments (she collected 50 child-size violins while living in Greece, where her husband was based).
Warned by the school’s cynical music teacher (Josh Pais) that most of the kids have attention spans that don’t go past do-re-mi, Roberta nevertheless perseveres and, before long, is getting through to the youngsters. After a brief romance with Brian, she moves with her boys into the neighborhood and begins to renovate a run-down old house. First half of the film culminates with a successful school concert in which even the most recalcitrant youngsters perform with style.
Second half picks up 10 years later, with Roberta’s violin classes now a successful feature in three inner-city schools. But budget cuts suddenly force the cancellation of the program and all seems lost until Roberta’s success story makes the newspapers and a charity concert is proposed. This event, known as Fiddlefest, eventually takes place at Carnegie Hall and is a standout success, with the best of Roberta’s ’98 class playing alongside some of her original pupils, plus such luminaries as Stern, Perlman, Mark O’Connor, Michael Tree, Karen Briggs and Arnold Steinhardt. An end title reveals the violin program was reinstated during the making of the film, but will still rely on charitable donations in the future.
On one level, pic charts the story of a defeated woman who picks herself up from the ashes of one life and makes a resounding success of a new one. After a long gap, she even starts dating again after, unbeknownst to her, her sons take an ad in the New York Review of Books classifieds and charming Dan (Jay O. Sanders) responds.
But on another level, the film is a passionate plea for the continued funding of music education, seen as a vital part of a rounded teaching program.
Pic also touches on race themes, with the mother of a gifted black kid pulling him from the program because “my son’s got better things to do than learn dead white men’s music,” an attitude firmly and, in the end, successfully countered by Roberta.
This is a long way from “Last House on the Left” and the subsequent horror films so expertly helmed by Craven over the past 20 years, but he obviously had his heart in the project and never misses a beat. Sequences that call for suspense (when one venue for the concert falls through, will another be found in time?) are expectedly well handled, but in the most intimate details, and especially in the frequent scenes with the children, Craven shows considerable sensitivity and a precise attention to detail.
Streep, who perhaps unsurprisingly claims never to have seen a Craven film before working on this one, adds another real-life character to her CV. She vividly conveys the colorful approach the real Roberta Guaspari seems to have taken toward her students, abusing them for lack of attention, for not practicing, for playing off-key — to the point that the complaint of a mother almost ends her career. Streep, who learned to play the violin for the film, convinces in the numerous sequences in which she’s called upon to perform and teach.
Bassett is effective as the school’s overworked principal who empathizes with Roberta and sincerely tries to foster the violin program, sometimes against overwhelming odds. Pop star Gloria Estefan has a small role as a supportive fellow teacher, and warbles the title song over the end credits. The remainder of the adult members of the cast, including Quinn, have relatively little to do, but the children are exceptionally good, with a standout performance from young Michael Angarano, who plays Roberta’s confused older son at age 7.
The final concert is a magnificent set piece and should help swell CD sales of the film’s soundtrack. All other credits are pro, with a special nod to Peter Deming’s subtly nuanced camerawork.