'Grace' revisits early pop music Review: Attempt to evoke the music culture of the '50s and later does not ring true.

September 20, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Grace of my Heart" is a rudderless drift down the surging current of American popular music from the late '50s through the late '70s.

It stops for the longest time at the Brill Building in the early '60s, that font of musical inventiveness at 1619 Broadway where some of the great songs of the culture were written. Unfortunately, it cannot re-create them; more unfortunately, that harms the film, particularly when versions of such greats as "Leader of the Pack" arrive in approximated form. If you've been to Smokey Joe's Cafe on Broadway, and heard Lieber and Stoller's real stuff, hot and heavy and delivered with soul and passion, "Grace of My Heart's" take tastes like it's been stored in Tupperware too long.

Illeana Douglas, a googoo-eyed actress in such films as "Cape Fear" and "To Die For," has the central role, a Carole King-like songwriter/singer whose career spans three generations and makes contact with each generation's principal musical vernacular. She is a superb actress, intelligent and lively. However, she's much better suited for a vivid supporting role than as the foundation upon which to build the movie; you never quite get used to her, and her personality is so marshmallowy and idealized, it's hard to feel her.

Moreover, the past as defined by writer-director Allison Anders has an almost generic feel. She runs into thinly disguised versions of real figures so often that the whole exercise begins to feel a little rigged. She even marries one of them!

John Turturro has an amusing turn as a Phil Spector-like producer who gives her her big break and more or less sponsors her whole career, even to the point of going broke on an album featuring her vocals, not just her words. But Turturro, alone among the reality-based characters, seems real and has his own believable psychology. The other characters are not so lucky: They float through, never feeling authentic but more like tracings.

The movie is something like watching impersonations, no matter how good: You yearn, after a bit, for the real thing.

The least convincing character is Matt Dillon as a version of Brian Wilson, the drug-addled genius behind the Beach Boys who spent 20 years locked up in his own home.

'Grace of My Heart'

Starring Illeana Douglas and Matt Dillon

Directed by Allison Anders

Released by Gramercy

Rating R (Profanity, sexual innuendo)

Sun score **

Pub Date: 9/20/96

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