Rated PG - Running Time: 2:04 - Released 10/29/99

It is truly a shame when great stories fall into the evil clutches of Hollywood writers. For some reason, James Cameron didn't think the real story of the Titanic was exciting enough to be told without a drippy, overemotional love story, and the same can be said here. Music Of The Heart, directed by Wes Craven and starring Meryl Streep, is based on the true story of Roberta Guaspari, a violin teacher who raised the standards of her Harlem school and impressed the nation. But novice writer Pamela Gray has pumped this already-amazing story full of melodramatic embellishment and, in so doing, all but ruined its impact.

Meryl Streep is wonderful, of course; she's the reason the film isn't a total waste of time. Streep's subtle timing and natural delivery lend incredible spontanaeity to her work, an effect all actors strive for but few achieve. Craven, taking time off from directing horror movies, does an adequate job with Streep and a cast of children, many of whom are actual members of Guaspari's famous Harlem violin class. But since almost every scene in the first two-thirds of the film requires that some cast member cry, there's only so much Craven can do. It's hard to make an impact while wading through syrup.

Roberta (Streep) is a recently divorced Navy wife who needs a job. At the suggestion of a friend (Aidan Quinn), she applies for a substitute teaching position at an East Harlem elementary school. Though the principal (Angela Bassett) at first turns her down for lack of experience, she auditions for the job by bringing in her two sons, Nick and Lexi (Michael Angarano and Henry Dinhofer) and having them play. Based on the accomplishment of having taught her own two kids to play so well, Roberta his hired. Before long she has established a children's violin program that is so rigorous and successful, the class appears at Carnegie Hall alongside violin greats like Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, and many others (who, by the way, all appear in the film as themselves).

Like I said, a great story. Besides Streep's excellent work, there are other standout performances like those of Charlie Hofheimer and Kieran Culkin, who play Nick and Lexi as teenagers, and Bassett as the ever-supportive principal Williams. Also turning in a good performance is singer Gloria Estefan as the mother of one of the students. And for the most part, the kids are adequate, especially since many of them are not actors but budding musicians. But Gray's script is almost impossible to stomach for the first hour and a half, until the triumphant final sequence, which is the first time Roberta is not portrayed as a pathetic heroine struggling through tears against all odds. Besides the obvious obstacles that surely confronted the real teacher (dangerous neighborhoods, the cynicism and lack of support from parents, etc.), Roberta must deal with boyfriends who can't commit, children who ask tearfully about why their father left, substandard home-improvement contractors ripping her off, and a caricature-style school music director who seems to want nothing more than to see her fail. I'm not saying these things couldn't or didn't happen in real life, but putting them in the script, and portraying them with such transparently manipulative dialogue, is counterproductive to the film's important message. True stories have to be dealt with differently than straight fiction: they have to appear like real life. Too bad Gray hasn't learned that yet. ***

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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