"Music of the Heart"
a film review by
Linda Lopez McAlister
On "The Women's Show" WMNF-FM 88.5 Tampa
Saturday, October 30, 1999

It would be hard to imagine two films more different in every way than the one I reviewed last week, "The Fight Club," and this week's film, "Music of the Heart." The former is cynical and nihilistic, the latter hopeful and inspiring. And the good part is that "Music of the Heart" is no pollyana fantasy, it's true. This feature film was inspired by an academy award nominated documentary ("Small Wonders" 1996) about a real live woman, Roberta Guaspari, who even now teaches violin to children in the public schools of East Harlem and who, after 13 years as a "substitute" finally got appointed to a permanent position while this film was in production.

This is a film that lots of people could benefit from seeing. They would enjoy it, as well. At the beginning of the film Roberta (Meryl Streep) is in a complete state of shock and depression because her husband has left her for another woman, an erstwhile friend of hers. Her ascerbic mother (Cloris Leachman) tells her to pull herself together and get a job, which she does, wrapping gifts in a department store. There she runs into an old high school friend, Brian (Aidan Quinn) who lives in New York and helps her get an interview for a job teaching a violin class at an inner city school in East Harlem. She has been a Navy wife so moved frequently, she has no teaching experience and the principal (Angela Bassett) turns her down. Nothing if not persistent, Roberta returns the next day with her two sons in tow, since she does have experience teaching them to play the violin. They insist on playing for the principal and impressed by both their playing and their mother's determination to get this job, this time she gives Roberta a chance.

There are all kinds of obstacles to her succeeding, she has to change people's perceptions about classical music, contend with dissatisfied parents, not to mention being a single mother trying to raise two boys alone in a rough neighborhood, boys who are upset about their father's leaving them. Perhaps the biggest battle of all was the year the Board of Education cut the budget and eliminated all music programs in the public schools, leaving Roberta to face the prospect of her East Harlem Violin Project being shut down. She and her students and their parents vow to fight, and fight they do. The culminating triumphal concert is a total joy and delight.

Meryl Streep has to be right up there among the finest screen actresses ever, and in this role she is just perfect. She gets to play the whole range of emotions as if she were playing a Stradivarius and the results are flawless. She even gets the violin playing right. (I usually get distracted in films about musicians because you can usually see quite clearly that they aren't really playing because they hold the instrument wrong or awkwardly and there are often very few full shots of them playing, so that a body double can be used. "Hillary and Jackie" is an example; Emily Watson was clearly not a cellist and it was distracting.) Here, it was easy to believe that Meryl Streep could play the violin. And the kids she teaches are terrific, as they go from rank beginners to fine young players, some of whom are good enough to go on to Juillard.

Roberta's classes give her students much more than the gift of music, they teach hard work, discipline, pride in accomplishment, self confidence, teamwork, and the ability to withstand negative peer pressure. Some of that may even rub off on kids and others who see this film. It's utterly enjoyable and pretty lively, earthy, and to the point, just as Roberta Guaspari herself turns out to be when she takes control of her life and finds her calling in the world. "Music of the Heart" is a rare gift of a film. Go see it.

For the WMNF Women's Show this is Linda Lopez McAlister on women and film.