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MUSIC OF THE HEART

by: Scott Renshaw

Before the screening of Music of the Heart I attended, there was a short clip in which Mery Streep and Gloria Estefan appealed to viewers to support arts and music education. It was a heartfelt appeal, and I was surprised to find the film evoking a heartfelt response. I was touched by the perseverance of Roberta Guaspari (Streep), the real-life East Harlem music instructor on whose life the film was based. I responded passionately to the narrow-minded administrative mandates that, in times of budgetary constraint, describe the arts and music in public schools as "extra," or not part of a "core curriculum." And my heart was lightened at the sights and sounds of children making beautiful music. I'll willingly make the following admission, Gentle Readers: I found myself getting misty-eyed during Music of the Heart.

I follow this admission with one of a different sort, the sort that makes viewers everywhere want to throttle critics within an inch of their thumb-turning, star-distributing lives: Music of the Heart, moving though it may be, just isn't a particularly good film. It begins with former Navy wife and mother of two Guaspari coping -- badly -- with her husband leaving her, trying to figure out what will come next in her life. In need of work and a sense of purpose, the one-time musician and occasional teacher proposes to East Harlem elementary school principal Janet Williams (Angela Bassett) a violin program for students. Though the program initially faces major obstacles from parents and other teachers, it eventually becomes a phenomenal success, providing discipline and a sense of accomplishment for kids unfamiliar with those concepts. Then those nasty budget cuts begin rearing their ugly head, forcing Roberta to find creative funding solutions.

There's no denying the fundamental emotional appeal of a story like this one. Hollywood has always loved "inspirational teacher" films, and there have been plenty of them: The Miracle Worker; To Sir, With Love; Conrack; Dead Poets Society; Stand and Deliver; Lean on Me; Mr.Holland's Opus; Dangerous Minds; etc. In recent years they have become even more prevalent -- perhaps indicating how much more complicated teaching has become -- as well as more rigidly formulaic. The unconventional teacher meets with resistance from students; some intransigent teachers (here the amusingly monotonal Josh Pais) view the newcomer as a threat to their slothful cynicism; eventually there is proof that the teacher has made a difference.

The ultimate disappointment of Music of the Heart has little to do with its predictability; on the contrary, like many films of its kind it hits its emotional high notes even though you know exactly where they're going to come. No, the disappointment in Music of the Heart comes from a strangely fragmented narrative that never quite commits to a central story. The film occasionally explores the juxtaposition of Guaspari's background and that of her students, but the intrusions of social problems in the kids' lives are lurching and token pieces of "reality" -- a child of separated parents here, a victim of a drive-by shooting there, an instance of domestic abuse thrown in for good measure. Pamela Gray's script also toys with Guaspari's own search for confidence as she instills it in her students, but that story is resolved long before the final fade-out, leaving a blurry character for Streep to develop. When the story starts winding its way into Guaspari's experiment with blind dating, you have to wonder if director Wes Craven has any sense for what the film is supposed to be about.

The real kicker comes during the final 45 minutes, when the story suddenly leaps forward 10 years to the violin program's financial crisis. There's no question it was a pivotal moment in the history of Guaspari's program, nor is there any question the Carnegi

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