31 July 2000 | Buddy-51
standard but moving story
I must confess that I approached `Music of the Heart' with a great deal of fear and trepidation. I really had no desire to subject myself to what I envisioned to be a 124-minute barrage of inspirational life messages and feel-good sentimentality. What a pleasant surprise then to discover this to be a genuinely moving and heartwarming true-life tale of an extraordinary teacher, Roberta Gaspari, and her equally extraordinary students.
In plot, `Music of the Heart' doesn't deviate much from the standard formula common to such films. We have, first, the neophyte white middle class schoolteacher, plunged into the heart of a problem-ridden inner city Harlem school, filled with burnt-out teachers who have learned to expect little (and thereby garner little) from the youngsters placed in their charge and children themselves whose troubled home lives provide little in the way of a nurturing environment for academic achievement. We encounter the predictable first-day stumbles of this headstrong, idealistic newcomer as the students challenge her authority and the relevance of her violin class in no uncertain terms; we see how, through discipline and the sheer force of her own determination, she eventually connects them to the music they are learning to play, building their self-confidence and slowly winning the respect of their often skeptical, and, occasionally, downright hostile parents in the process. Then comes the great challenge, as the school board, after ten successful years in which the program has earned a sizable reputation and even been featured in magazine articles, pulls the plug on the funding. Thanks to the sheer determination of Gaspari, the parents whose children's lives have been forever altered, a magazine writer and the voluntary participation of a number of the world's premiere violinists (a large number of whom appear as themselves in the film), the group stages an amazing fundraising concert at Carnegie Hall, the proceeds from which save the program and help ensure its survival for the next several years.
One of the chief reasons that `Music of the Heart' does not dissolve (as it so easily might have) into a puddle of goopy tears lies in the matter-of-fact interpretation of the main character that both writer, Pamela Gray, and actress, Meryl Streep, bring to bear on the role. At no time is Roberta ever portrayed as a saintly figure. In fact, she is a woman filled with all sorts of insecurities and vulnerabilities, exacerbated by the devastating sense of bewilderment and loss caused by the unexpected termination of her marriage and her seeming need to be dependent on a man for comfort, support and a sense of purpose. She is often overbearing, pushy and pigheaded and not just in the classroom where it counts, but also in her personal life where it often alienates her from the ones she loves most. Yet, somehow out of this mass of self-doubts and personal missteps, she finds the inner strength and emotional wherewithal to work miracles. Streep throws herself so completely into the role that we cannot take our eyes off her for a single one of the film's 120 enthralling minutes (and I doubt that she is ever off screen for more than a few seconds in the entire film). It is a truly glowing performance.
Equally impressive, director Wes Craven is to be highly commended for drawing such an impressive array of credible, down-to-earth performances from a large cast of outstanding preteen actors. Thanks to them and an air of naturalism in the dialogue, the scenes between the youngsters and their teacher always ring true and believable.
I defy anyone - even the most tone deaf, musically disinterested member of the audience - not to be deeply touched by the final scenes of this film. Craven, from all his years doing those slasher films I suppose, really knows how to generate a sense of suspense as we follow the pre-show behind-the-scenes preparations of the nail-biting participants. The recreated concert itself, with a number of the real life participants brought back to play for the occasion, is utterly engrossing and leaves the audience both rheumy-eyed and covered with goose bumps. Well, maybe "Music of the Heart" is, after all, filled with the `inspirational life messages' and `feel-good sentimentality' I so dreaded at the outset of the film. That being the case, I guess that isn't such a bad thing after all!