Playing on our hearts

Meryl Streep's inner-city violin teacher brings emotion and pluck to the warm-and-fuzzy 'Music of the Heart.'

October 29, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

"Music of the Heart," the real-life story of an inner-city violin teacher struggling against an unfeeling bureaucracy to keep her program going, is the sort of tear-inducing feel-gooder that only a curmudgeon could find fault with.

Permit me just a few curmudgeonly moments.

But first, the essentials of the plot. Newly divorced Roberta Guaspari (Meryl Streep), desperate to find a way to support herself and her two boys, persuades an inner-city principal (Angela Bassett, believably strong-willed but compassionate) to let her teach a violin class.

Guaspari, who could have been a world-class violinist herself but abandoned her career to raise a family, brings plenty of enthusiasm (and a little naivete) to the job. Good thing, because her students, some of whom are loath to admit to doing anything as uncool as learning the violin, have all sorts of problems to overcome.

And overcome they do. After a few years, Guaspari has herself a thriving class, with students clamoring to get in. (There's an annual lottery to decide who makes it and who doesn'.) What she doesn't have is guaranteed funding, and when the New York City school board decides that arts classes aren't all that important, Guaspari finds herself out of a job.

So she fights back -- joined by her students, their parents, even the principal. Not to mention some of the finest violinists on the planet.

The film has yet to be invented that doesn't benefit from having Meryl Streep in the starring role, and "Music of the Heart" benefits more than most. With trademark dedication to her craft -- she spent months learning to play the violin -- Streep is, as ever, a wonder. Her Roberta Guaspari is neither a superwoman nor a peerless teacher; she's a stubborn, bull-headed but ultimately dependent woman forced out on her own (she spends half the film coping with her sense of abandonment after the divorce). She succeeds the only way she knows how, by using those same traits to teach her reluctant students what one of their mothers refers to derisively as "dead white man's music."

A rousing concert performance that brings Roberta's charges onstage with the likes of Itzhak Perlman and Isaac Stern is an irresistible crowd-pleaser. And the film's plea, that funding for arts education is in constant -- and unde- served -- danger, should resonate with anyone who's ever delighted in any style of music.

There's even a pleasant surprise, as horror maven Wes Craven proves he can handle films that aren't made-to-order for the Halloween season. He exhibits a lightness of touch and feel for understatement that should come as a shock to anyone who knows him solely as the man responsible for "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Scream."

But about those quibbles. Take Streep out of the film, for instance, and what you have is a standard TV movie-of-the-week, its emotions worn nakedly on its sleeve, its answers too pat. And to be honest, the film concentrates on the less-interesting half of this teacher-student relationship.

While Craven includes some quiet touches that suggest Guaspari isn't the only character here struggling to overcome limits -- one boy, for instance, has his sister carry his violin, so he won't be mocked by his friends -- "Music of the Heart" could use a little more focus on the students.

There's also a snooty music department head who comes across as a caricature of every anal-retentive teacher you've ever had to endure. For a film about violin virtuosos, the soundtrack is unrelent- ingly schmaltzy. And don't believe the credits that list singer Gloria Estefan as a co-star; she appears in the film for maybe three minutes, usually only as background.

"Music of the Heart" wants to be the feel-good movie of the year, and there's no doubt its heart is in the right place. It's already done some serious good of its own; during filming, the New York school board announced that funding for Guaspari's class was being restored.

So, yes, "Music of the Heart" leaves you feeling plenty good. But with a little more care, it might have left you feeling enlightened, too.

`Music of the Heart'

Starring Meryl Streep and Angela Bassett

Directed by Wes Craven

Released by Miramax Films

Running time 130 minutes

Rating PG (brief mild language and sensuality)

Sun score **1/2

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