About three minutes after the film "Small Wonders" won Best Documentary at the 1997 Academy Awards, somebody was probably on the phone pitching its story as the perfect crossover for a feel-good feature drama.
The film tracked the astonishing tenacity of a violin teacher named Roberta Guaspari who built, from the ground up, an extraordinary music program that teaches inner city kids in East Harlem to play the violin. Guaspari inspired hundreds of students to strive, and battled budget-cutting bureaucrats and miscreant kids for 10 years before having her program yanked out from under her, only to be save it by raising private funds through a concert that featured her students performing along side the likes of Itzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern and Nashville fiddler Mark O'Conner.
Now in 1999 comes "Music of the Heart," the fictionalized version of this up-lifting story, starring Meryl Streep as a more deeply examined Guaspari, a distraught divorcee, abandon by her philandering Naval officer husband, who lands in Harlem with her two young boys after talking her way into what at first seems like a temporary, thankless and very possibly pointless job.
Directed (believe it or not) by horror meister Wes Craven ("A Nightmare On Elm Street," "Scream") in a audible cry for respectability, "Music" isn't much more than elementary sentimentality. But it is effective and affecting, thanks in large part to being tent-poled by Streep's predictably outstanding performance (although co-stars Angela Bassett, Adian Quinn and singer Gloria Estefan have nothing to be ashamed of, either).
Even when the picture falls back on stock characters (the school's resentful primary music teacher, an insecure student with muscular dystrophy), prefabricated emotions ("If daddy loves me, why did he leave?") and circumstantially predictable plot afterthoughts (there's some sort of ghetto-related student tragedy in each act) -- Streep is there, fearlessly playing the kind of flawed but humanly heroine that is her raison detre.
Not afraid of laying bare Guaspari's large, vulnerable heart or exposing her short temper with the children (something they grow to admire as the nice white lady version of street toughs), the actress carries the movie across the finish line and lending it the kind of respectability that elevates it above its movie-of-the-week foundation.
As for Craven, he certainly proves he capable of more than just cutting open naked teenagers (and then spoofing himself), even if he loses his way at times, like when the move takes a sudden lurch forward by a decade, thereby losing its momentum for an entire act.
(I hate to advocate the use of that most tiresome of time-spanning techniques, the montage sequence, but we needed something here to bring us through those 10 years instead of skipping over them.)
But once Craven finds the right gear again, "Music" takes off toward a strong -- if pandering -- sentimental finish that finds the now confident, joyful and proud Guaspari circling the wagons, and rallying the press and New York's music community to save her unique program from the budget ax with the now famous Carnegie Hall concert that serves as the movie's climax.
Affecting but obvious, "Music of the Heart" will put smiles of the faces of traditionalists but it's not so sweet as to send cynics into sugar shock.
What you see is what you get: A shamelessly warm fuzzy lesson about the value of teaching music and other arts in the public schools, which seem to be cutting such programs with increased frequency and prejudice.
Run time: 124 mins
In Theaters: Friday 29th October 1999
Distributed by: Miramax
Production compaines: Craven-Maddalena Films, Miramax Films
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 64%
Fresh: 56 Rotten: 32
IMDB: 6.7 / 10
Director: Wes Craven
Starring: Meryl Streep as Roberta Guaspari, Angela Bassett as Principal Janet Williams, Gloria Estefan as Isabel Vasquez, Cloris Leachman as Assunta Guaspari, Michael Angarano as Nick at 7, Aidan Quinn as Brian Turner, Kieran Culkin as Lexi at 15, Charlie Hofheimer as Nick at 17, Jane Leeves as Dorothea von Haeften