Music Of The Heart
Rating -

Meryl Streep: Roberta Guaspari
Aidan Quinn: Brian Sinclair
Angela Bassett: Janet Williams
Cloris Leachman: Assunta Guaspari
Gloria Estefan: Isabel Vasquez
Josh Pais: Dennis
Jay O. Sanders: Dan

Produced by Stuart M. Besser, Sandy Gallin, Susan Kaplan, Marianne Maddalena, Alan Miller, Walter Scheuer, Bob Weinstein and Harvey Weinstein; Directed by Wes Craven; Screenwritten by Pamela Gray

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Written by DAVID KEYES

If "Music Of The Heart" is any indication that the future of melodramatic tearjerkers looks to be bright, then its about time. The recent years have proven quite fatal for the genre, as Robin Williams has squirmed his way into theaters with clown noses and poetry books, and director Chris Columbus has played his audience with pretentious, manipulative sappiness. Where their, and therefore the genre's, problems lie, "Music Of The Heart" corrects them--here is a little movie with touchy-feely affection, but never once is it overdramatized by the basic plot structure. Instead, the movie gets its real influence from the talents of three brilliant actresses, who treat the material with compassion and realistic sentiment.

Two of them you are familiar with (Meryl Streep and Angela Bassett), one of them has never been in a movie before. Her name is Gloria Estefan, and has apparently spent her two-decade music career looking for the right role to break onto the movie scene with. Lucky for her.

Then again, how lucky we all are, really, to witness this wonderful cast and crew work their magic on a script that could have seemed like garbage if it fell into the wrong hands. Behind the camera is director Wes Craven, who makes his non-horror debut here, and in front of the lens is Meryl Streep, playing the role of Harlem teacher Roberta Guaspari (who was originally intended for Madonna, ironically). Divorced and looking for work, Roberta takes up the job as a substitute music teacher at the local elementary school in Harlem, where students don't even understand what music class if for in the first place. But she is determined to get the budget-less program off the ground; the first task is unloading a set of 50 violins she has collected onto the students of her class. Such events are followed by other important ones; she meets with the school board to discuss funding, puts on concerts for her students, among other things. Pretty soon, the job as a substitute teacher has become that of a full-time one. The process is a routine one, as to be expected, but Streep's brilliant presence as a teacher reaching for the highest goals is one not to go unnoticed; it may very well be the finest performance she's had in the past five years.

Much like the film's close relative, "Mr. Holland's Opus" starring Richard Dreyfuss, "Music Of The Heart" cannot be told all at once. Rather, the material stretches its plot into several years, following the progression of the music department, as seen through they eyes of the one who revived it. Of course, she's had all the necessary help; Angela Bassett as the elementary school principal wants to help as much as possible, and Gloria Estefan, as Isabel Vasquez, is a calm but determined screen influence. Together, the three bring forth a significant change in the way people learn about music, the way they play it, and therefore they way they comprehend it.

Wes Craven is one of my favorite movie directors, and not just because scaring the pants off of moviegoers comes natural to him. His masterpieces like "Last House On The Left" and "A Nightmare On Elm Street" echo darker messages than what the visual imagery actually presents, and sometimes we find ourselves staring on in awe at his artistic significance. "Music Of The Heart" is not as artistic, or effective, as most of his horror movies. But since it's his first effort to break from the formula, the effort deserves to go noticed; packed with lush performances, solid direction and (here's what most important) realistic sentiment, here is one of the mose effective tearjerkers to come along in quite awhile. That is, assuming they were ever effective to begin with.

1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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