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Doo-wop to Pop in 'Grace'

Claudette Barius

The Singer Who Would Be Carole King: Illeana Douglas plays a rising musical star in "Grace of My Heart."

Allison Anders' initially catchy musical bio-pic turns into an atonal mess

By Rob Nelson

HAVING ONE'S CHEEK bitten off in a horror movie doesn't sound like a great way to start an acting career, but for Illeana Douglas it has led to Grace of My Heart, a fictionalized musical bio-pic that affords her a prime role as a Carole King­like singer-songwriter. No doubt it helped somewhat that said horror movie was Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear, and that the cheek-biting monster was played by Robert De Niro.

Yet Douglas' palpable intelligence and riveting screen presence are such that no filmmaker could have failed to take notice. With her oversized eyes, unusual beauty and Joan Crawford­style intensity, Douglas is the sort of classic performer who's born rather than made.

Perhaps writer/director Allison Anders' greatest achievement in Grace of My Heart is her decision to keep Douglas the center of attention, even as the plot meanders its way through the American pop-music history of the '60s--from the doo-wop and girl-group eras through the British Invasion and the drugged-up cycle of psychedelia, eventually arriving at the dawn of female folk singers in the early '70s.

Anders holds her camera tight on Douglas' hugely expressive features, allowing the rich play of emotions on her face to direct the course of the melodrama. Her performance is hypnotic. It doesn't matter that the mismatched lip-synching in her singing scenes totally fails to convince. Similarly, it shouldn't affect Douglas' career that this initially catchy film ends up warbling into an atonal mess.

The movie opens in 1958, with Douglas' Philadelphia heiress Edna Buxton taking first place in a singing contest over a young black woman. From the beginning, the central question is how much this rich girl's privilege is responsible for her success. It clearly earns her the special attention of Joel Millner (John Turturro), a producer in New York's famed Brill Building song factory--although it can't get her in front of the microphone at a time when "lady singers" are no longer in vogue.

So Millner puts her to work as chief songwriter for a Shirelles-like group and changes her name to Denise Waverly in order to conceal her wealthy background. Here, Anders exposes the hidden makeup of entertainment-industry pantomiming: omnipotent businessman disguises an upper-class white woman as a working-class one to exploit the PR "realism" of black performers. Unfortunately, the director soon trades the subtle revelations of her script for overplotted, underdeveloped soap opera.

Inspired by the true story of one of the singers' girlfriends, Denise writes a song about unplanned pregnancy just before creating one of her own with a bohemian intellectual (Eric Stoltz). Grace of My Heart becomes increasingly dependent on a string of boyfriend characters to sketch its version of pop life in the '60s: Denise gets steamrolled by Beatlemania when it causes her music-journalist lover (Bruce Davison) to leave town; and she experiences the counterculture through her relationship with Jay Phillips (Matt Dillon), a boyish surfer-group guitarist whom Anders strains to equate with Brian Wilson.

This genius-musician character comes complete with a volatile temper, a pot-smoking Dr. Landy and an addiction to "working" in bed, although it's here that the movie falls prey to some serious anachronisms. Dillon's "Wilson" mentions that John Lennon has already written "that song about a walrus," even though he's still trying to make the leap from beach-rocker to visionary architect of the concept album. It doesn't take a pop archivist to know that the Beach Boys and the Beatles were at least contemporaries in studio experimentation.

The sole virtue of this section is "God Give Me Strength," an infectiously syrupy epic of pop orchestration that Jay and Denise create as her vocal debut (brilliantly composed for the film by Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach) but which lays an egg in the marketplace because the public is still not ready for female empowerment on the airwaves.

By the time Denise finally does make it big--after her ridiculous stint pulling up turnips in a hippie commune--the film's hallucinogenic sense of time makes you wonder if Anders is likening her to Carole King or Nancy Sinatra. It's a credit to Douglas' talent that she remains compelling even when her character devolves into a stoned groupie. Still, one anxiously awaits a movie in which her harmony won't be drowned out by the filmmaker's noodling.

Grace of My Heart (Rated R; 115 min.), directed and written by Allison Anders, photographed by Jean Yves Escoffier and starring Illeana Douglas, Matt Dillon, Eric Stoltz, Bruce Davison and John Turturro.

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From the September 19-25, 1996 issue of Metro

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Copyright © 1996 Metro Publishing, Inc.

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