MUSIC OF THE HEART seems like an obvious shoe-in for the Inspiring Teacher True Story subgenre: Meryl Streep this time, inner-city kids (again), administrative threats, cynical parents who see the light, polite tears and applause at the end. Yet it all works quite well. Streep not only gained her 12th Oscar nomination for this 1999 drama, she spent six hours a day for eight weeks learning to play the violin, to better convince in the role of Roberta Guaspari, who spent years developing the Opus 118 Program, teaching string music to talented, opportunity-deprived kids in East Harlem.
It is an inspiring story, done with an easy foot on the pathos pedal, and remarkably was directed by horror film maven Wes Craven, the last guy in the realm you’d guess would tackle a project that didn’t involve physical misery. It helped to have on board consistently sharp eggs Angela Bassett, Aidan Quinn and Cloris Leachman. Gloria Estefan makes her acting debut (does just fine) and the kids are hard to resist.
Aside from the mighty Meryl (who lost that year to Hillary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry), the $27,000,000, 124-minute film also drew a nom for best Song. Generally approving reviews helped, but the film racked up less than $15,000,000 at the gate.
I liked this story, much as I enjoyed Dangerous Minds, Stand And Deliver and numerous other teach-against-odds movies all the way back to Blackboard Jungle. One does wonder, though, when the glow from these once-a-year Star-Meets-Issue sagas evaporates, and you resume your couch plop after a standing ovation, where is a movie with the huevos to show hopeful, well-meaning educators driven to despair or right out of the profession by vicious students, moronic parents and hopeless bureaucracy? For that end of the classroom skip wish-fulfillment twiddlers like The Substitute or garbage like Class Of 1984 and check out Detachment, from 2012, with Adrien Brody.
Speaking of curriculum according to moviedom, there are basically only three kinds of kids in American schools: (1) the sensitive inner-city kids who need a single-mom white chick to show them how to play instruments, write essays or make a speech; (2) the snooty boarding school punks who need a handicapped ex-vet or poetry quoting black dude to slap the shit of them; and (3) the vast suburban high school hordes who will do anything but study because the only thing anyone between 13 & 18 cares about is getting laid.