Wes Craven’s latest film, Music of the Heart (now available on video), is a welcome change of tune for Craven, who has thus far been a single-genre director of horror movies, most notably the Nightmare on Elm Street series and Scream. Based on the life story of Roberta Guaspari, which also inspired the award-winning documentary Small Wonders, Music of the Heart is an old-fashion movie that celebrates children, hard work, and the joy of making music.
Guaspari, an Italian-Catholic from upstate New York, earned a master’s degree in music education from Boston University before marrying a naval officer she had met three months before. His success mandated frequent moves to bases around the world, where her teaching career took second fiddle to her role as a navy wife. When he leaves her for her close friend, Guaspari, suddenly jobless, homeless, and a single mother of two young boys, returns home to seek refuge from her widowed mother. While working as a gift-wrapper for a local department store, she happens upon an old boyfriend who suggests she apply to teach some music to inner-city kids in his East Harlem Neighborhood.
The next thing she knows, Guaspari is in a taxicab lurching through the New York City ghetto of 1980, accosted by drug dealers and squeegee-men. This scene, of the country-girl stunned by the grit of the big city, invites comparisons to the current boomtown that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani would certainly relish. Meryl Streep skillfully portrays Guaspari, whose tenacious dedication helps her overcome many an obstacle. She is initially rejected by the school’s principle (Angela Basset), who relents when Guaspari’s only student references, her two sons, serenade Basset in her office. When the school is unable to provide instruments, Guaspari pitches in with 50 violins she bought while living in Greece. She remains undaunted in the face of community suspicion, drive-by shootings, budget cuts, and a very demanding job. Most poignantly, her faith in her students, of whom the system has thus-far expected little, and her passionate belief in the power of music to motivate children to achieve, carry her and the East Harlem Violin Program all the way to Carnegie Hall.
Unfortunately, though Miramax calls this film an “inspirational true story,” it freely deviates from the fact, demeaning both the school in which Guaspari taught and her colleagues, to make their star shine. In Small Wonders (also distributed by Miramax), the Central Park East school is accurately depicted as a famously innovative and successful public school, a model for hundreds of small public schools of choice around the United States. Sadly, Miramax felt it necessary to metamorphose the true story, that of a committed group of teachers and parents who joined together to create miracles, into the typical Hollywood formula of an individual who succeeds by self-determination alone.
The formulaic familiarity is somewhat distracting, as are several predictable scenes such as one in which an African American mother pulls her son out of Guaspari’s class because she doesn’t think he should be learning “dead white-man’s music.” Yet Guaspari’s story, even if partially fictionalized, is inspiring, and the screenplay by Pamela Gray stops just short of excessive sentimentality. When one parent complains that Guaspari’s no-frills style is too harsh, prompting her to adopt a more politically correct approach, the children’s plea for the “old Roberta” is quite fresh. Gray aptly minimizes the details of Guaspari’s failed marriage or current romances, and keeps the film focused on the kids’ struggles to learn, and Guaspari’s battle to teach.
While the adult cast sometimes appears wooden, the kids steal the show. One easily forgets they are actors, not nascent violinists. The film captures the spirit of these students, who are genuine, funny and able to rise to the occasion in spite of difficult odds. They put their more jaded and reluctant elders to shame. Several musical luminaries, including Itzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern, Michael Tree, and Arnold Steinhardt of the Guarneri String Quartet, who portray themselves in the film, redeem the grown-up set and join the fundraising effort that saves the program. Witnessing the awe of these children, who have earned the right to play with these masters, is indeed heartwarming. As Hollywood as it may be, Music of the Heart is clearly a movie worth seeing with your kids.
Eve Leeman is a writer living in Manhattan.