[Screen It]

(1999) (Meryl Streep, Aidan Quinn) (PG)

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Drama: After her husband walks out on her, a woman tries to set up and then maintain a beloved but tenuously supported violin class in an East Harlem school.
Roberta Guaspari's (MERYL STREEP) Navy husband has just run off with a friend of hers, leaving the stay at home mom to care for their young sons, Nick (MICHAEL ANGARANO) and Lexi (HENRY DINHOFFER) and forcing them to live with her mother, Assunta (CLORIS LEACHMAN).

A chance encounter with a former classmate and current writer, Brian Sinclair (AIDAN QUINN), however, changes her life forever. Knowing her love for music, Brian suggests that Roberta contact Janet Williams (ANGELA BASSETT), the principal of an East Harlem school, about staring a violin class there.

With few other options, Roberta packs up the kids, heads into a neighborhood completely foreign to her, and just manages to convince Janet to hire on her a temporary basis, much to the chagrin of Dennis Rausch (JOSH PAIS), the resident, but uninspired music instructor.

At first, things are rough. The students, including DeSean (JADE YORKER), a troublemaker, Lucy (VICTORIA GOMEZ), who has a penchant for snapping her fingers, and Guadalupe (ZOE STERNBACH-TAUBMAN), a young girl in leg braces, are either uninterested in learning the violin or simply no good at it. Another student, Naeem (JUSTIN SPAULDING) is pulled from the class by his bitter mother.

To make matters worse, Roberta's staying with Brian, the only person in town she knows. Despite a romance breaking out between them, however, he then leaves for a several month writing assignment. And except for second grade teacher Isabel Vasquez (GLORIA ESTEFAN), none of the other instructors like her.

Yet she perseveres and years later, despite a confrontational teaching manner, has become quite successful and admired. Her kids, Nick (CHARLIE HOFHEIMER) and Lexi (KIERAN CULKIN) are now teens and conspire to fix her up on blind dates, such as with Dan Paxton (JAY O. SANDERS). Even so, her attention remains on her course that, due to budget cutbacks, suddenly faces academic extinction.

Thus, with the aid of Janet, photographer Dorothea von Haeften (JANE LEEVES) and a host of acclaimed violinists, including Itzhak Perlman, Arnold Steinhardt and Isaac Stern, Roberta sets out to save her beloved violin class.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Perhaps it's because it's that time of year -- specifically late October -- but there's been a somewhat odd transformation of sorts occurring among some directors most previously considered pigeonholed. Just like all of the kiddies who don outfits and masks on Halloween to assume new identities, several notable directors are doing the same with their careers.

First, there was David Lynch, best known for his eerily odd, occasionally surreal and usually R-rated films such as "Blue Velvet" and "Lost Highway," recently delivering the wonderfully old-fashioned, G-rated, Disney yarn, "The Straight Story."

Now following in suit with the one-hundred and eighty degree makeover is Wes Craven. Known for his horror films such as "Last House on the Left," "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and the "Scream" films, he's probably one of the last directors most would imagine telling a story about a middle-aged, inner city violin teacher. Let alone, that it stars the acclaimed and certainly nonthreatening or horrific actress Meryl Streep.

Of course, had the plot dealt with her terrorizing or being terrorized by students or a haunted violin (imagine Freddie Krueger with his long, steel-tipped fingers trying to play the instrument), then some might understand Craven's interest in the story. Yet, without a trace of horror material or the faintest strain of any scary music to be found anywhere, Craven delivers a moving and enjoyable tale.

Working from screenwriter Pamela Gray's ("A Walk on the Moon") script that's based on the Oscar- nominated 1996 documentary, "Small Wonders" (by Allan & Lana Miller), Craven tells the true story of violin teacher Roberta Guaspari and her trials and tribulations of starting and then maintaining her inner- city music class.

While the filmmakers obviously couldn't avoid or neglect what are presumably the real-life incidents encompassing the story, moviegoers will likely find similarities not only to other dedicated and persevering music instructor stories such as "Mr. Holland's Opus," but also to the "outside teacher arrives in troubled inner-city school" plots that have fueled films such as "Dangerous Minds" and "Blackboard Jungle" and even the TV drama, "The White Shadow."

Although such comparisons are unavoidable -- due to the truth and the obvious need for some dramatic conflict -- the film thankfully doesn't exploit such material too much and turn this into a racially charged story. Instead, it appropriately focuses on the music and the teacher's efforts not only to teach the kids about it, but also about discipline and self-worth.

Despite that opening the door for the entire proceedings to become overly pretentious or generate sickeningly sweet sentimental moments, the film and its message nearly always avoid that. What it doesn't avoid, however, are some moments that are nothing short of cliched (no matter their basis in truth), such as the one racist parent who pulls her kid out of the class, the oldest son blaming his mother for his father's departure, etc...

In addition, most of the entire first half of the film feels fragmented and episodic in nature as the plot linearly progresses from one point to the next and often feels like a made-for-TV flick. While such problems aren't bad enough to give the film too much of an off-key sound (although some may find that to be the case), they do temporarily prevent the film from hitting the high notes that fortunately arrive in the second half.

That's when the film picks up steam and more dramatic conflict as the teacher and her newfound allies plan and then scramble to play for the eventual benefit performance at Carnegie Hall. When that final concert arrives -- and features the likes of world-renowned violinists such as Itzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern and many others -- the film really takes off and transcends into a blissful, visceral experience.

Of course it doesn't hurt that eleven-time Oscar nominee Meryl Streep (with wins for "Sophie's Choice" and "Kramer vs. Kramer") picks up the fiddle herself (and actually plays it) and leads us through the film. Much to everyone's shocked surprise, I'm sure, Streep delivers another excellent performance as the dedicated and challenged music teacher. Due quite simply to her outstanding work, the film manages to transcend its tired and/or worn material and she is nothing but heartbreakingly believable in the role.

The supporting roles, on the other hand, are strictly that in the truest sense of the word as none get the opportunity to develop as fully as one would like or expect. Aidan Quinn ("This is My Father," "Practical Magic") gets the meatiest role as Roberta's friend and lover, but he's jettisoned about half way through as the story progresses down its true course.

As far as the others, Angela Bassett ("What's Love Got to Do With It," "Waiting to Exhale"), Jane Leeves (TV's "Frasier"), Jay O. Sanders ("The Matchmaker") and singer-turned-debuting actress Gloria Estefan all deliver decent performances, but don't have much time on-screen to make their characters stand out in any sort of memorable way. Performances from the kids are good, but likewise shortchanged, although both Kieran Culkin ("The Mighty") and Michael Angarano ("For Richer or Poorer") deliver good takes as the teacher's kids at different ages.

All in all, the film is an entertaining and uplifting experience that manages to overcome a number of minor difficulties/problems that are more pesky than debilitating. Featuring another standout performance from Meryl Streep, a decent transition into mainstream films by director Wes Craven, and a positive message about the benefits of educational music, the film hits enough right notes to earn a passing grade. As such, "Music of the Heart" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 13, 1999 / Posted October 29, 1999

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