Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, August 16, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1999)

18. Music of the Heart

I have a mostly unrelated personal anecdote about “Music of the Heart” to relate. I first saw it, years and years ago, back in my Seventh Grade music class. I only bring this up so I can mention how much of a bipolar nut-job my music teacher was. She would be ludicrously sunny some days, and cruelly judgmental others, not to mention having a puritanical streak running through her. She also had a thing for sentimental, cliché, “heart-warming” drama such as these. (She also made us watch the similarly clunky “Paradise Road,” but not before letting us know how “disturbing” that movie was, which ultimately proved to be a matter of opinion.) Needless to say, eleven year old me was not horribly impressed with either the movie, the class, or the teacher. But then again, eleven year old me, or me of any age for that matter, are not the target audience of "Music of the Heart." Instead, people like my bipolar music teacher, those whose heartstrings are plucked by the most cliched, overly sentimental treacle, were.

"Music of the Heart" was Wes Craven's bid for mainstream critical acceptance. He only agreed to make "Scream 3" if the Weinsteins bankrolled the film. I can understand his desire to break out of the genre that defines his career. I mean, even the most hardened horror fans probably, occasionally enjoy some other type of movie. And Wes has always had mixed feelings about being pigeon-holed as a "horror director." He was a teacher once, after all, perhaps suggesting some sort of personal attachment to the story. However, "Music of the Heart" follows the exact same outline as every other “Naive white teacher moves to inner city school and teaches the troubled youth how to live and love life” story told. The film brazenly follows the footsteps "Stand and Deliver" or "Dangerous Minds" planted before. Either Craven has the soul of a middle school music teacher inside of him or he figured a deliberate assemble of worn-out "inspirational drama" cliches was the best way to win the approval of critics and the hearts of middle-age moms everywhere.

The movie embraces those sentimental tropes but, at times, does show signs of something resembling a harder edge. Roberta Guaspari, at least as Meryl Streep plays her, reminds me a lot of my old music teacher: Abrasive and critical, especially of the kids who, you know, don’t actually give a shit about a music class routine school scheduling shuffle them in to. Perhaps some of those kids would rather express themselves with writing, painting, athletics but this isn't there story, so their interest aren't important. I suppose this shows Roberta as a fully rounded human being. Maybe but there were probably better ways of making that point then having her rotate solely between “inspirational” and “bitchy.” Streep plays the same kind of part that she’s played numerous times: A hardened iron lady who gets her way through pure force of will. And skill, I guess. Streep hardly stretches herself.

The rest of the cast isn’t really notable. Josh Pais is really irritating as a teacher who doesn’t care about his pupils. Instead of exploring what could lead to this sort of mindset, Pais plays him as a thin caricature. Kieran Culkin, Macaulay Culkin’s younger, more talented brother, plays Streep’s son at fifteen. Kieran’s presence is appreciated but he isn’t given much to do. Gloria Estefan acts in this too and doesn’t embarrass herself. Good for her, I guess. Most of the child actors are non-professionals and aren't horribly annoying.

The movie makes a major writing faux-pas when it jumps ahead ten years at the start of the second act. All those kids we spent the last half-hour getting to know? No longer in the movie. It’s obvious that these children exist just as stepping stones to make Roberta seem more noble, especially the little girl in the leg-brace, the girl with the divorced parents, or the inevitable kid slain in gangland related violence. Roberta handles each of these events like a saint, of course. The film doesn't address her self-important attitude, perhaps because it can't address it's own.

I did like the scenes of unappreciative parents having to put up with their kid’s off-key practicing. That seemed realistic. The message of keeping music programs alive in inner-city schools is an important one, I suppose, even if the film approaches it in a very thin manner. The film is blatant Oscar-bait that successfully bait the Oscars. It received two nominations, one for Estefan's end credits collaboration with 'N Sync, still a favorite of dental office waiting rooms and elevators. The other was for Streep's performance, her twelfth of seventeen nominations. “Music of the Heart” is totally paint-by-numbers and isn’t anything that hasn’t been done many times before in painstakingly similar ways. Is it any wonder that Wes was back to directing horror in no time at all? [Grade: C-]

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