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Weekly Alibi Band and Deliver

By Devin D. O'Leary

NOVEMBER 1, 1999:  Inspirational films are a dicey prospect. How often do you really feel the need to be inspired? And if you do, is a film the best place to find it? I mean, if you really want to get off your ass and do something with your life, you probably shouldn't be sitting in a darkened theater on a Monday afternoon watching a movie, ya lazy sack of Ben & Jerry's.

... Sorry. That was rude. And not the least bit inspirational.

The truth is, occasionally people feel the need to affirm this crazy thing called life and -- instead of skydiving or quitting their crappy jobs or volunteering for Big Brothers/Big Sisters -- they seek out cheery true-life stories of people overcoming adversity. Every couple years, moviegoers find themselves gravitating toward one of these uplifting opuses -- be it an unconventional teacher inspiring inner city youth to become mathletes, a nutty pianist triumphing over mental illness to become a world-renowned musician or a bunch of South American soccer players eating each other to stay Alive!

Music of the Heart is based on the inspirational true story of Roberta Guaspari (thesped here in full Oscar mode by Meryl Streep), whose sheltered housewife world fell apart one day when her philandering Navy hubby walked out on her and her two young sons. After an extended period mixing equal parts moping and self-pity, Guaspari picked herself up by her bootstraps and wrangled herself a job as a music teacher in New York City. Unfortunately, the only place that would hire her was an elementary school in one of the city's toughest neighborhoods, East Harlem. Despite a lack of funding, a lack of respect and an initial lack of interest in classical music from her rowdy young charges, Guaspari overcame the odds and started a classical violin class that has now lasted more than a decade and has given birth to dozens of expert musicians.

If Music of the Heart sounds like a cross between Stand and Deliver and Mr. Holland's Opus, well ... it is. Toss in a little Dangerous Minds and a smidgen of Dead Poet's Society and you've got a film that is hardly unique, but certainly delivers the feel-good goods.

The greatest challenge faced by these kinds of movies is to not sound like one of those cheap "inspirational" posters with the picture of the seagull or whatever that your boss buys in the mall and then slaps on the breakroom wall in hopes of keeping employees happily toiling away for another six months without asking for a raise. Music of the Heart never tugs too hard on the heartstrings, even though the combination of beautiful music and cute kids could have easily sunk into pure shmaltz territory with little or no effort.

Streep is fine (as if we'd expect any less of her) as the tough-at-the-core woman who finds her power sapped by the dirty deeds of a doggy man. It's in the classroom that she wins back her self-esteem, and it's to the credit of the screenwriter, Pamela Gray (A Walk on the Moon), that Guaspari doesn't emerge as some sainted figure. Part of Guaspari's charm, it seems, is that she is a rather irascible woman. In one telling sequence, the teacher is forced by some angry parents to turn down the volume on her scathing encouragement of the students ("You all stink today!"), but the children realize that it's Guaspari's grumpy discipline that they really crave, and their teacher is soon back to her tough-loving ways.

Since it is based on a true story, the film's crises have a tendency to fly in rapid succession without much dramatic build-up. There's never a moment that Guaspari isn't battling some romantic, economic, social or educational emergency. Most are resolved with a quick slice of the editor's blade and not much dramatic effort on the part of the characters. It isn't until the story skips ahead 10 years that we get our first major filmic crisis. After a decade on the job, it seems, the New York school district cut funding for music programs. Guaspari and her flourishing program were in danger of being tossed out onto the street. As dramatized in the film's extended climax, Guaspari was unwilling to give up without a fight and organized a public fundraiser called "Fiddlefest," which attracted worldwide attention and inspired an Academy Award-nominated documentary, titled Small Wonders.

That documentary caught the eye of famed horror director Wes Craven (Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream), who climbed on board for his first non-scary filmic effort. Despite his frequent hits, Craven is often not the most original director. His lesser efforts (like Deadly Friend and Shocker) prove he sometimes dips into bland cliché to fill out his cinematic canvas. Music of the Heart is neither exceptionally inventive nor excessively pedestrian. As a director, Craven is not particularly visible in Music of the Heart. He drifts into the background more often than not, toning down any visual curlicues and allowing the true characters to shine forth.

All in all, Music of the Heart is a workman-like effort. It doesn't inspire the kind of stand-up-and-cheer atmosphere that many of these sorts of films aim for. On the other hand, it never wears out its welcome with sentimental speechifying and histrionic hagiography (Patch Adams -- I've got your number!).


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