‘Music of the Heart’: Unusually bloodless Wes Craven movie works as Meryl Streep showcase
Wes Craven, the director of the Scream franchise and of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, is hardly the kind of filmmaker from whom one would expect a syrupy motion picture about a determined violin teacher who wins the hearts and minds of her inner-city school students. Yet Craven is the man responsible for Music of the Heart, a film utterly devoid of slashed faces, lethal stabbings, and deadly fingernails.
Instead, this distaff version of Mr. Holland’s Opus – with touches of To Sir with Love – offers loads of sentiment, some classical music (violinists Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, and Mark O’Connor appear as themselves), plenty of bad pop tunes, and a superb performance by Meryl Streep as a recently divorced teacher dedicated to maintaining classical arts as part of the public school curriculum.*
Meryl Streep vs. Our Gang and pop tunes
There is much to carp about Music of the Heart, from the misuse of Angela Bassett’s considerable talents to the overabundance of obnoxious pop rhythms in a film that extols the immeasurable worth of classical music. But when Meryl Streep is on screen, nothing else matters.
Not the cornball sequence in which she must audition for a job as a teacher; not the fact that the youths in her neighborhood are as menacing as the Our Gang kids; or even the miscalculation (in terms of dramatic coherence) of having a much too sympathetic actress portray a character – inspired by real-life music teacher Roberta Guaspari – who could at best be described as “challenging.”†
In fact, Streep’s Roberta is so eccentrically likable that when her students complain to their parents about her rudeness, they come across as whiny little wimps.
Old-fashioned star vehicle
A master at conveying thoughts and emotions by means of a surreptitious look or a slight variation in her tone, Meryl Streep single-handedly holds together Music of the Heart. Aidan Quinn provides solid support in his few on-screen moments, but the movie truly belongs to its star.
The multiple award-winning actress makes every intonation, every action, every reaction seem effortless and perfectly natural, invariably delivering her well-rehearsed lines as if they had just popped in her head. The mechanics of her acting technique are there, but they are like invisible strings that each time place her right on the mark.
Wes Craven realized that Streep is the heart and soul of his film. Thus, his camera lingers on the actress, allowing her to dominate nearly every scene. Very few performers could have managed to carry an old-fashioned sudser like Music of the Heart for more than two hours, but Meryl Streep can – and does.
* Richard Dreyfuss starred in Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995). Sidney Poitier starred in To Sir with Love (1967).
† Roberta Guaspari was the subject of Allan Miller’s 1995 Oscar-nominated documentary feature Small Wonders.
Music of the Heart (1999).
Dir.: Wes Craven.
Scr.: Pamela Gray.
Cast: Meryl Streep. Angela Bassett. Aidan Quinn. Cloris Leachman. Gloria Estefan. Kieran Culkin. Charlie Hofheimer. Michael Angarano. Jay O. Sanders. Cameos: Isaac Stern. Itzhak Perlman. Mark O’Connor.
Music of the Heart movie cast info via the IMDb.
Meryl Streep Music of the Heart image: Miramax, via the Wes Craven official website.
Aidan Quinn, Angela Bassett, Gloria Estefan, Meryl Streep Music of the Heart image: Miramax.