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Photograph by Kerry Hayes

Learning Process: Meryl Streep imparts instrumental tips in 'Music of the Heart.'

Heartfelt Clichés

Good causes don't make good movies

By Heather Zimmerman

A DEBT OF GRATITUDE is owed to whatever marketing executive changed the title of 50 Violins, renaming it for the generic potboiler that it is. The new title, Music of the Heart, should warn away those who don't enjoy--pardon the pun--having their emotions played like a cheap violin. The true story of music teacher Roberta Guaspari, on whose life this film is based, has already made it to film once, in the 1996 documentary Small Wonders, about the East Harlem Violin Program, which grew out of Guaspari's groundbreaking violin classes in Harlem public schools. An inspiring story doesn't require much embellishment, and although I haven't seen the documentary, it must do Guaspari's story more justice than Music of the Heart--just about anything would. The reality simply couldn't so lack pathos that it requires every bad cliché imaginable to coax our sympathy: sputteringly impassioned speeches from the heroine, a glowering naysayer who gets proven wrong, even an endearing reaction shot from the family dog.

Relatively new screenwriter Pamela Gray has written for Hallmark Hall of Fame films, and it shows. What doesn't show, not one little bit, is that Wes Craven--yes, that Wes Craven--directed Music of the Heart. Throw in stars Meryl Streep and Angela Bassett, and you've got perhaps the clearest case ever of the road to hell being paved with good intentions. As Guaspari, Streep manages to stretch the depth-challenged role to three whole emotional states: victimized (her husband cheats on her and leaves her), shrewish (she starts teaching and tells off all the flaky men in her life) and triumphant (her students' prowess amazes everyone). As the school principal who champions Roberta's classes, Bassett appears in so few scenes that she only gets to furrow her brow and break up fights--but perhaps she was the lucky one. Almong the parade of big names who meant well in lending their likenesses to the good cause portrayed by this bad film: Gloria Estefan, Isaac Stern and Itzhak Perlman.

Comparing films to made-for-TV movies is a common insult in film criticism, but the trademarks of that genre, the calculated heart-string tugging and the generally condescending tone, can cheapen "actual events" as nothing else can--and both are in full force in Music of the Heart. Worst of all, the film overlooks its own intended message about the ability of art to teach powerful lessons. In its soulless, hackneyed storytelling, Music of the Heart unfortunately teaches nothing at all.

Music of the Heart (PG; 130 min.), directed by Wes Craven, written by Pamela Gray, photographed by Peter Deming and starring Meryl Streep and Angela Bassett, opens Friday at the Los Gatos Cinema.

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From the October 28-November 3, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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