Music of the Heart remains an oddly fulfilling excursion from Craven’s usual stylistic tropes, housing one of Streep’s finest, most unsung performances.
Perhaps it was fright fatigue that compelled horror master Wes Craven to dramatize Allan Miller’s 1995 documentary Small Wonders, making his sole, notable departure from the genre and style that made him a household name. Sandwiched between the two middle Scream films, Music of the Heart is a straightforward drama outlining the true story of Roberta Guaspari (Meryl Streep), who helped create a music program in East Harlem. Maybe after gorging himself on gluttonous, irony-laden slasher comedies, Craven just wanted a reprieve to focus on something that felt genuine. Whatever the reason, we’re blessed to live in a world where the Wes Craven director credit shares the screen with an *NSYNC song extolling the virtues of “freeing the me inside of me.”
Long considered something of a footnote in Craven’s filmography, the kind of snarky aside reserved for VH1 retrospectives, Music is actually a shockingly cogent exercise in inspirational cinema. The film’s first half is a sterling argument for Craven’s versatility, efficiently distilling serious pathos into a well-worn premise. Guaspari is a newly single mother whose Navy husband has run off with her ex-best friend, leaving her with her mother (Cloris Leachman) and two sons to raise. An old crush from her school days (cocksure charmer Aidan Quinn) links her up with Janet Williams (Angela Bassett), the principal of an elementary school in need of a new music program. Williams reluctantly agrees to let Guaspari teach some kids how to play the violin, a fruitful endeavor for the children even if many of their parents can’t see the long term benefits right away. The dramatic beats that follow are far from unexpected, but they play out in welcome, unconventional ways.
Guaspari is such a magnetic protagonist here. Even though she’s something of a precursor to someone like Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side, she never feels as self-important as that strand of heroine. She’s more preoccupied with putting her life back together and not going insane than she is single-handedly saving a bunch of brown children with the power of music. Yes, she waxes philosophic about the mutable offerings of string instruments, but that’s because she’s clinging to the one element of her life as yet to be run asunder: her musical prowess. She’s definitely a fish out of water in Harlem (as evidenced in the only “pure” Craven sequence, a POV scene of Guaspari’s hilariously horrifying cab ride into the city), but her relative shelteredness is the butt of the humor. We’re laughing at her, not the very real issues plaguing her newfound community.
When the mother of one of her students asks how many black composers she can name, Guaspari clumsily claps back with a remark about Arthur Ashe being a trailblazer in tennis and the resulting well-intentioned cluelessness goes a long way to making her an endearing leading figure. It’s a little frustrating to watch a majority of the film’s black women treated like professional wrestling heels in baby-faced Guaspari’s quest for audience sympathy, especially once legendary songstress Gloria Estefan arrives to turn the beat around by befriending her, but their concerns and predispositions are never presented as anything other than perfectly logical, and it’s ultimately Guaspari who has to learn to adapt.
Now, if we’re being honest, a lion’s share of the work rests on Streep and Bassett’s shoulders. Streep is at her most relatable here, seeming like a legitimate, regular-ass person who’s been temporarily crippled by emotional trauma. Many performances she’s delivered before and since spike the meter several decibels higher than “transparent”, but here, she feels knowable, not just a walking, talking Oscar nomination in the making. Bassett, reliably, embodies a firmness and passion that grounds Streep’s erratic persona. Her presence alone counterbalances the white savior complex at the film’s heart, constantly popping up to remind Guaspari that the world is more complicated than she seems to assume.
Even McG could probably make a pretty watchable film with these two perennial champs at the fore, but Craven’s primary contribution here is the work he does with his cast, from his heftily gifted leads to the small army of child actors who round out the ensemble (a younger Michael Angarano stands out as one of Guaspari’s sons). The script has a number of moments that, if poorly executed, could be laughably maudlin, but he blocks and arranges them in a way that feels wry, lived-in and honest. There’s still tear-jerking at play, but it’s muted—manipulation on a more subtle scale.
Visually, Craven shows off a quiet sense of mis-en-scéne, particularly in the blocking of many of the film’s domestic set pieces. He uses the inherent architecture of Guaspari’s three homes (her mother’s place, her first New York apartment and the house she ends up buying in Harlem) to express her varying shades of comfort and security. There are truly thorny exchanges in the early goings with Guaspari struggling on the phone with her unseen ex-husband, with furniture and wall corners acting as dividing lines between her and her children. These moments of weakness play out in increasingly effective ways, like lingering on a slow zoom of her sons as Streep weeps, exasperated off screen. Craven similarly creates interesting juxtapositions between the relative order of Guaspari’s classroom and the chaotic home lives many of her students lead. It’s a refreshing outing for the legendary suspense maven.
But it’s the second half of the film that feels like lukewarm, saline-soaked fluff. Guaspari’s story leading up to her class’ first concert is a thumb in the eye of the flat white savior narrative, but once we flash forward a decade, we’re treated to an extra hour of the least interesting peril imaginable. We’re bombarded with her success in the ensuing years before being gobsmacked by her program being cut from the school’s budget and a giant benefit concert, featuring famous musicians saving the day. This back half starts off with the same kind of silent subversion the first half succeeds in, before defaulting into exactly the kind of rote, foregone conclusion you’d be forgiven for pigeonholing the film into in the first place. If you can ignore 15 minutes of masturbatory orchestral performance at the film’s conclusion, Music of the Heart remains a curious, if oddly fulfilling excursion from Craven’s usual stylistic tropes, housing one of Streep’s finest, most unsung performances.