REVIEW: Music of the Heart – In memory of Wes Craven
Produced by: Susan Kaplan, Marianne Maddalena, Allan Miller, Walter Scheuer
Written by: Pamela Gray
Edited by: Gregg Featherman, Patrick Lussier
Cinematography by: Peter Deming
Music by: Mason Daring (score), Diane Warren (theme)
Starring: Meryl Streep, Angela Bassett, Gloria Estefan, Aidan Quinn, Cloris Leachman, Jane Leeves, Jean-Luke Figueroa, Olga Merediz, Kieran Culkin, Charlie Hofheimer, Rosalyn Coleman, Michael Angarano, Josh Pais, Henry Dinhofer, Justin “DJ” Spaulding
Based on a true story and inspired by the 1995 documentary Small Wonders by Allan Miller
Wes Craven was in many ways my gateway to appreciating horror. Though I had seen and enjoyed horror films prior to anything he had made, Craven was the one who enabled me to dig further into the classic slasher movies that most people think of when they discuss the genre. When I first decided to dedicate the month of October to horror films, three of the first movies I reviewed were Wes Craven-directed: The Last House on the Left, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. During that time, my unfavorable review of the first Elm Street film actually caught the attention of a group from pretty much the fan site for the series, and this encouraged me to review a few more of the films, including the Craven-produced Dream Warriors and the aforementioned New Nightmare, both of which I actually enjoyed more than the first.
Before even this, however, there was Scream, the film that both celebrated and satirized the genre Craven had helped form. Now, I actually saw the third film in the series first at a sleepover back in 7th or 8th grade, and even though it’s considered the weakest of the series, and though I had no familiarity with the characters to have much context for what was going on, I actually had a good time with it, and I subsequently sought out the rest of the films at the time and enjoyed those even more! During my time as a horror genre-hater, the Scream series remained my one exception whenever horror movies came up as a topic of conversation, as they were more fun than truly terrifying to me. It soon became apparent, however, that I really should see the movies that Scream was deconstructing, and so this actually put the pressure on me to finally give films like the Elm Street movies, Friday the 13th, Halloween, and even The Cabin in the Woods their fair chance. I didn’t always like them, but the process itself has been enjoyable, and I feel like the pressure has certainly given me a new perspective and appreciation for the genre as a whole.
Sadly, Wes Craven suddenly passed away this week after a quiet battle with brain cancer, and I actually felt a pretty great sense of personal loss when I heard the news. I’ve still yet to see other famous films of his like People Under the Stairs and The Hills Have Eyes, but Craven had unbeknownst to me actually cemented himself in my mind as a filmmaker I still greatly appreciated, if only because of his indirect encouragement to branch out in my movie habits. Craven will always be remembered for his work in the horror genre, but instead of reviewing one of those famous horror films, I figured I’d do something a bit different and honor the guy by reviewing his own foray into unfamiliar territory, the often forgotten Music of the Heart, a sentimental based-on-a-true-story drama that has been sitting in my Netflix instant viewing queue for quite a while ever since I randomly glanced at the name “Wes Craven” being tied to a film that had Meryl Streep, Angela Basset, and Gloria Estefan in the film’s poster.
Released in the time between Scream 2 and 3, Music of the Heart tells the story of Roberta Guaspari, who started her career as a recently-separated mother of two young boys and in desperate need of a job. After meeting with an old acquaintance, she is encouraged to pursue a job in education. In the process, however, she wound up finding more than a job: she found her calling, teaching underprivileged, inner-city youth how to play the violin.
Wes Craven was inspired to tell Guaspari’s story in film form after watching the 1995 documentary Small Wonders, which also documented Guaspari’s efforts to keep the Opus 118 Harlem School of Music running. Music of the Heart also explores this territory, chronicling how she practically auditioned for and won a position that never really existed in the first place and then culminating in her heroic efforts to preserve what had become in time a prestigious music program that was about to be cut due to funding issues. The film adaptation of her story also incorporates details from Guaspari’s personal life, as well, detailing the hardship that came in the aftermath of an unfaithful husband abandoning his family and the strain this placed on her relationship with her sons and her self-confidence. The film also deals with her attempts to find new romance, and while it doesn’t simply dismiss these desires, her pursuits are portrayed less like a necessity to her becoming a more complete person and instead more as a driving force in Guaspari discovering the strength to provide for her family herself rather than depending upon someone who could do it for her, as before.
If there’s anything the movie excels at, it’s in the way that the movie never discounts the perseverance it took for her to get to where she is, and while the movie does seemingly idealize her, it at least attempts to not play her up as a saint, either. She frequently says things without thinking and is often needlessly harsh in her critiques of others, which gets her into some trouble. And yet the film tries to turn it around as say that these things are actually what made her so great. I have no doubts that many kids appreciated her uniquely honest teaching methods, but the film is averse to showing any of her actual failures, and most of the beats where things do go wrong are situations where Guaspari had no part in causing it, and the resolution serves as a way of showing the culture shock of a white teacher finding herself living in a rough neighborhood for the first time. As with a lot of other films of this nature, this can often come off as cloying and condescending, even if it is unintentional.
This could’ve easily been avoided, however. I could’ve done with the taking the focus off its lead for a bit and giving a bit more time to the numerous side characters who pop up throughout the film – some of the children that come through her class get a bit of attention, but the teachers who helped her throughout the years are really underserved, while one apathetic teacher who remains that way throughout the film’s ten year-spanning story, despite the program’s success, seems completely unnecessary and mean-spirited. Meryl Streep undoubtedly deserves the spotlight for her Oscar-nominated turn as Roberta Guaspari, but Angela Bassett as the principal really only gets to play the reluctant hardass up until the very end, spending most of her time talking Guaspari down from her high horse before unconditionally supporting her efforts to save the program. Gloria Estefan is completely wasted, despite her character working right alongside Guaspari in both the school and in running the program. It’s possible that she’s there more because she also performs the Diane Warren-written theme song alongside NSYNC, but considering her positioning as one of Guaspari’s few friends early on, the character seems kind of pointless to the story.
Despite these flaws, however, Music of the Heart still tells a moving story that actually left me wishing Craven had actually told more of it. The grand finale, in which you know Guaspari triumphs because that’s just the nature of the story and why the film got made in the first place, still feels completely earned, with Guaspari at Carnegie Hall, conducting students from across her ten years as a teacher alongside experienced violinists like Itzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern, and Arnold Steinhardt (all of whom are playing themselves). The journey of her going from an abandoned and helpless wreck to a tough, confident, and inspiring teacher being honored by some of the world’s most accomplished musicians is certainly compelling.
And so is the fact that this was a film helmed by Wes Craven, a man who spent decades terrifying audiences and creating two of the most iconic franchises in a genre that is often looked down upon by some of the snobbier critics, among which I would have once proudly counted myself. I have nothing but gratitude towards Craven and his works for helping to open my eyes to my unfair prejudices in that area. Craven would return to horror exclusively for another five full length films, with admittedly mixed success – full disclosure, I personally love the ridiculous Scream 4, and I recall Red Eye being pretty descent, too! In that time, his only other detour outside of the genre was as the unlikely director of a segment in the anthology film Paris, je t’aime, alongside works from directors like Sylvain Chomet, the Coen Brothers, Alfonso Cuarón, Alexander Payne, and Gus Van Sant. I do still think it’s a shame that Craven apparently never found another project that interested him enough to distract him for a bit, but you can’t fault the guy for pursuing his passion all these years, especially with fans who appreciated so much of what it was that he was doing in a genre many snobs still look down on. Sure, he may not have been the greatest director of all time, but he certainly deserves his status as a horror movie legend, and he will most certainly be missed.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 3 / 5