Review: 'Music of the Heart' hits all the right notes
October 28, 1999
By Reviewer Paul Clinton
(CNN) -- Madonna and Meryl Streep were considered for the title role in the 1996 film "Evita" and Madonna won. Still, Streep's isn't the first name that comes to mind when Madonna drops out of a film project.
But that's what happened with "Music of the Heart." When Madonna retreated from the project, citing "creative differences," the two-time Academy Award-winning Streep stepped in, violin in hand.
"Music of The Heart" is based on the true story of Roberta Guaspari, a teacher who -- when the funding for her violin program was stopped by the New York public school system -- refused to accept that she'd have to give up teaching her inner-city students.
Streep stars as Guaspari, an ordinary woman who achieved extraordinary things. For 10 years, she guided the ambitions, hopes and dreams of hundreds of underachieving students.
Using a combination of tough love and a gift for passing along the wonder of knowledge, she turned her students into disciplined, proud overachievers with her special music program in the schools of East Harlem. When the funding was canceled, she went to Carnegie Hall. And yes, it took practice.
Ms. Music Man
Guaspari arrived in New York in 1980 as a recently divorced mother of two young sons. She came armed with 50 violins and her beliefs. Guaspari said she felt certain that music not only fed the soul, but also taught skills needed for all learning.
A decade passed during which many of her pupils went on to Ivy League schools and her program became a beacon of hope for hundreds of students. Then the school board pulled the plug, saying there were no funds.
Guaspari organized a concert to raise money for her program. To her amazement, the community united behind her. Before she knew it, the event was booked at Carnegie Hall with guest appearances by luminaries including violinists Isaac Stern and Itzhak Perlman.
The 1993 concert raised $250,000 and saved the violin program. Funding for the program has since been reinstated by the board of education.
Bows, no arrows
"Music of The Heart" will make you smile from the heart. Yes Virginia, just one person can make a big difference. Once again, Streep has melted into a role and become Roberta Guaspari.
Streep's performance is all the more impressive, considering the actress had to learn to play the violin for the film. Of course that type of attention to detail is a Streep hallmark. She may have been in a bad film here and there, but she has never made a false move on screen.
This writer interviewed Guaspari at her home in East Harlem in 1996. I saw how her passion appears first in her eyes, then in her voice. You can feel her willpower when she talks about her violin students and music. Streep, as usual, has her character's attitude and essence down pat. And the film's re-creation of Guaspari's warm, inviting brownstone is almost perfect.
This film marks the acting debut of singer Gloria Estefan. She made a wise decision in taking the small but pivotal role of Isabel Vasquez, a teacher who takes an early stand with Guaspari against the naysayers. Pamela Gray's script places her at the center of the action without making her carry any scenes.
This is a subject close to Estefan's heart. The singer has been a longtime supporter of "Save the Music," a program started by VH1 to promote music instruction in public-school curricula. This opportunity for Estefan to try acting was a perfect match of story and cause. The film begins with a pitch for "Save the Music" from Estefan and Streep talking directly into the camera about the importance of the organization.
"Music of the Heart" also co-stars Angela Bassett as Janet Williams, the high-school administrator who champions Guaspari's cause. Aidan Quinn plays Brian Turner, a love interest in the film who's mainly just a sideline to add richness to Guaspari's private life.
Rounding out the main cast are Cloris Leachman plays Guaspari's well meaning, but overbearing mother. Jane Leeves (NBC's "Frasier"), has a supporting role as Dorothea von Haeften, a photographer with connections in the world of classical music.
The story -- previously the subject of an Academy-nominated documentary, "Fiddlefest" (the film was released in 1996 by Miramax as "Small Wonders"), could easily have looked like a "cause-of-the week" made-for-TV film, with its straightforward structure -- three acts, each with a separate conflict, solution and conclusion. But the talents involved lift "Music of the Heart" into a feature film well worth seeing.
Wes, on Warm and Fuzzy Street
Perhaps the most surprising presence on the project is horror master Wes Craven in the director's chair. The 60-year-old filmmaker is known for his slice-and-dice flicks, most notably the "Nightmare on Elm Street" series (1984 to 1994) and the "Scream" parade -- No. 1 in 1996, No. 2 in 1997 and No. 3 in post-production for a planned February 2000 release. These are hardly touchy-feely films dealing with emotions other than sheer panic and blind fear.
But Craven reportedly has wanted to break away from the genre that made him famous. He's done so now with wonderful results. He's a master at pushing our emotional buttons. In this film he's just pushing different ones.
Bottom line, "Music of the Heart" is an inspiring film that should cross generational lines to entertain adults as well as many of their teen-age and even younger offspring.
"Music of the Heart" opens nationwide on Friday and is rated PG with a running time of 123 minutes.
Streep says Craven fans will be 'shocked'
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