Music of the Heart

Nov 3, 1999 at 12:00 am

"How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" asks the lost tourist in New York City. "Practice, practice."

That old joke comes to mind during Music of the Heart, whose emotional climax takes place at the fabled concert hall. But irreverent humor has no place in a movie as relentlessly earnest and uplifting as this inspirational drama.

What’s most interesting about Music of the Heart, the against-all-obstacles, real-life story of a doggedly determined violin teacher in East Harlem, is that it exists at all. The story of Roberta Guaspari and her violin program has been the subject of numerous media profiles as well as the feature documentary, Small Wonders.

But Music of the Heart is about the deification of Guaspari via her onscreen surrogate, Meryl Streep. Director Wes Craven (Scream), capably switch-hitting from horror films to an intimate docudrama, recognizes that Streep is the engine that powers this narrative.

In screenwriter Pamela Gray’s (A Walk on the Moon) construction, Roberta Guaspari is a Navy wife who puts her own needs after those of her constantly reassigned spouse and two young sons. When that husband leaves her, she must find a way to rebuild her life, and Streep’s flustered dynamo does so with a vengeance.

Drawing on her no-nonsense teaching skills, and a stash of 50 violins, Guaspari instructs fidgety children to "stand strong" and master this difficult instrument. On occasion, the rough outside world intrudes on her oasis of music and discipline, but nothing stops the indefatigable Roberta, who stages a highly successful benefit concert to provide private funding when school budget cuts threaten what has become her life’s work.

Music of the Heart, innocuous as its title, does not convey Guaspari’s life force, only Meryl Streep’s. In fact, everyone around the actress seems to exist solely to interact with (or do something for) her. These include her co-workers, clay-to-be-molded students and loving-resentful sons. It’s as if the filmmakers were so stunned that someone like Roberta Guaspari actually exists that they forgot to examine what makes her so important to so many.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].