“Meryl Streep replaces Madonna, acts with Gloria Estefan, and is directed by Wes Craven. It’s the end of the world as we know it.” I love Entertainment Weekly more than the average joe, but I rarely remember who was on the previous week’s cover, let alone a blurb from an issue released more than fifteen years ago. The 1999 Fall Movie Preview issue opened its entry about the awkwardly titled Music of the Heart with those perfectly worded two sentences, ones that set up a film that by all accounts could have been a disaster. Meryl is usually the first choice for a movie, not a second or third. She usually has talented, seasoned actors sharing the screen with her, not a Latina pop star making her film debut. And throughout her long career, despite belting out a couple screams in the disappointing thriller Still of the Night, she hasn’t come close to appearing in the kind of grisly horror films genre mastermind Wes Craven is so well known for. So what was this project exactly?
Meryl’s final movie of the twentieth century turned out to be a fairly standard biopic-drama, one that tells the inspirational true story of a violin teacher who changes the lives of her inner-city students. The film takes place in two time periods—1988 and 1998. In the first hour of the film, Roberta Guaspari is struggling as a single mother to two kids. Her husband has left her for another woman, and she takes a long-term substitute teacher position at a Harlem elementary school to make ends meet. Her positive influence on these kids—many from broken homes, most who live in less than ideal circumstances—is immediate, and violin playing gives them both confidence and a new creative outlet. Roberta doesn’t think she will make it through the first year, but a decade later she is still teaching, still inspiring the latest batch of young students. But when the school budget is slashed, and the violin program is excessed, Roberta faces potential unemployment, and no musical outlet for kids who desperately need it. She and the community band together to save the problem, and change lives in the process.
Meryl initially didn’t want to be in the movie. She probably didn’t love the idea of stepping in after Madonna left due to creative differences with Craven—it’s well known that Meryl really wanted to play Evita in the early 1990s, a part that ultimately went to Madonna and earned the singer-actress a Golden Globe award—but instead Meryl didn’t think she could learn how to play a new musical instrument in the short window she had before production commenced. Not only was she promoting her two fall 1998 releases—One True Thing and Dancing at Lughnasa—but she also had to train for hours every day to convincingly play a violin teacher. Craven wrote her a heartfelt letter that told of his passion of the project and his insistence that she be the perfect person to play the real-life Roberta. Meryl gave in.
A horror director since the 1970s, Craven had wanted to make a non-genre movie his entire career, with no one ever giving him a chance to do something different. The success of Scream, though, finally gave him the opportunity he was looking for, and he chose Music of the Heart as his prestige project that would break him away from all the things that go BOO. One of the best, and worst, elements of Music of the Heart is its simplicity. This is an engaging story, well told, with Meryl in top form, as always. It makes you feel good from beginning to end, and while the film is a tad long at more than two hours, it is never boring. At the same time, while Craven makes the transition into making a true-life drama with ease—he’s a born storyteller, and could probably make a terrific film in any genre of his choosing—the complete lack of any directorial style or flourishes is a little disappointing. He didn’t need flashes of his horror movie roots—a knife-wielding maniac chasing Meryl through the elementary school would have been out of place—but it’s a shame that he couldn’t make any significant mark, visually or otherwise. He stays out of the way in this one, and lets the story and Meryl’s performance do most of the work.
Music of the Heart may not be one of Meryl’s most memorable movies, but it’s the best one she made between Marvin’s Room and Adaptation, and she is certainly the best part about it. She is in almost every scene, commanding the screen by employing both her comedic and dramatic gifts, not to mention her musical chops. When she appeared on Inside the Actor’s Studio with James Lipton, she said that if she hadn’t have become an actress, she would have loved to have been a musician, and in Music of the Heart she got to finally show what she’s made of. She is great in this movie, not just in portraying an emotionally distraught mother and a teacher who truly cares about her students, but as a failed musician who gets a second chance when she plays a sold-out concert in Carnegie Hall. Meryl is so convincing as a violin player that one would assume she had been practicing the instrument her entire life; in fact, she’d never touched the instrument until she signed on for this movie. Meryl received her twelfth Academy Award nomination in early 2000, closing out the century with one last magnificent screen performance.
1999 is often regarded as a significant year for movies, much like 1939, or any year of the 1970s. Now modern classics Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, American Beauty, Three Kings, and Magnolia came out within three short months of each other. Released at the end of October (Halloween weekend, ironic given Craven’s involvement), Music of the Heart may have been a little too ordinary to stand out from the crowd at the time, but it holds up today as a terrific inspirational story, and an important reminder that music should never be dropped from a school’s curriculum, no matter the economy’s hardships. Music teaches kids how to work hard, to be strong and empathetic, and to achieve something much bigger than themselves. Roberta Guaspari, whose story was also captured in the documentary Small Wonders, gave her students a reason to dream when no one else in their lives could, and Music of the Heart beautifully captures this woman’s stimulating journey. It also gave Meryl one more great character to play before she would take her first, and to date only, break from film acting. She wouldn’t appear in another movie for three long years, but when she came back at the end of 2002, she was ready to give us a new decade of brilliance that not even her biggest fans could have dreamed of.