Aug 14, 2014

Review: Music of the Heart (1999)

So it was my girlfriend who picked to watch this movie and as the opening credits are rolling with nice pleasant music, I was dumbfounded to see Wes Craven's name attached to this. Craven does non-horror movies? Since when? Turns out that Music of the Heart is his only non-horror movie and even received some Academy notice. 

As you'd expect of a Craven horror movie, Music of the Heart was released around Halloween in 1999. Its intentions are quite different though. Executive producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein are part of the team that make up the Music of the Heart production, add in Meryl Streep in a starring role and that means there's a strong possibility that Music of the Heart is what you'd call an "Oscar bait" film. November is usually awards season but October 29th isn't so distant from that. There are obviously good and bad Oscar bait films and the question is where does Music of the Heart find itself?


Genre: drama, music
Directed by: Wes Craven
Produced by: Susan Kaplan, Marianne Maddalena, Allan Miller, etc.
Written by: Pamela Gray
Music by: Mason Daring
Running time: 124 minutes
Production company: Craven-Maddalena Films, Miramax Films
Distributed by: Miramax Films, Alliance Atlantis Communications, Arthaus Filmverleih, etc.
Country: United States
Language: English
Budget: $27,000,000
Box office: $14,859,394 (Worldwide)

IMDb entry
Rotten Tomatoes entry

Starring: Meryl Streep, Cloris Leachman, Aidan Quinn, Angela Bassett, Josh Pais, Gloria Estefan, Charlie Hofheimer, Kieran Culkin, Jay O. Sanders, Henry Dinhofer, Michael Angarano, Jean-Luke Figueroa, Jade Yorker, Victoria Gómez, Justin Pierre Edmund, Justin 'DJ' Spaulding, Zoe Sternbach-Taubman, Christopher Lopez, Ruben Jared Seraballs, Lucy Nonas-Barnes, Rosalyn Coleman



Violin teacher Roberta Guaspari (Meryl Streep) is devastated by her military husband leaving her for another woman. Left with two kids to fend for herself, she feels defeated and doesn't know what to do. An old friend of her's, Brian Turner (Aidan Quinn) advises her to go see a friend of his who is a principal at a public school (Angela Bassett) for a teaching job. Despite being a great violin player, Roberta doesn't actually have any actual teaching experience and is declined a position. Despite the setback, Roberta doesn't let up.


It's pretty easy to sum up Music of the Heart as an inspirational movie about a white woman coming into a poor black inner-city neighborhood school and "saving" them all from their probable miserable ends. That might seem unfair but MotH does very little to actually dispel the thought. Yes Meryl Streep does put on a good performance but she's hampered by a weak and predictable script. The biggest problem is that the bonding she does with the kids she's teaching feels incredibly superficial. 

Roberta has difficulty adapting to her new environment as you'd expect. The kids don't listen to her and it looks like she'll never successfully be able to teach them to play violin. She's somehow able to win them over with her harsh ways while also attempting to navigate the kinds of problems that plague them from poverty to gang violence. As a viewer you never really feel the closeness between Roberta and the kids she teaches and then the movie fast fowards ten years later with a totally new set of kids! It almost as if there are two movies in one here.

The way in which dramatic moments are done feel melodramatic and artificial. (Spoilers) Take the scene in which Roberta has to explain to her son Nick that his dad is never coming back to live with them. Or how Roberta reacts to her music class being cut because of the budget. You don't feel any closer with the characters after these scenes. The introduction of the new love interest Dan Paxton (Jay O. Sanders) also reeks of cheesiness. (End Spoilers) These moments failed to hook me in but I'll say this once again, Meryl is not to blame for the script's shortcomings. You completely buy her as a violin teacher and she apparently actually learned how to play the instrument for her role. That's some real dedication there.

Music of the Heart falls into the bad Oscar bait movies. It tries to pack a lot of inspirational and dramatic fluff that doesn't really go anywhere. It's based off of a true story actually but feels very Hollywood-ized and makes me want to see the documentary Small Wonders which is about the same thing. Its feet are firmly planted in "white savior narrative" and it irks me just how failed the bonding between Roberta and her students ends up being. It tries to pack in an origin story about Roberta Guaspari followed by a big crisis ten years later. I'd have picked one of the parts which would've been potentially deeper and more heartfelt.



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