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Movie Review

'Music of the Heart' a Long, Hard Pull on the Heartstrings


Based on the Oscar-nominated documentary "Small Wonders," "Music of the Heart" (formerly titled "50 Violins") stars Meryl Streep as Roberta Guaspari, the East Harlem violin teacher who has introduced thousands of underprivileged students to the joys of music.

It includes cameos by violinists Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman and Arnold Steinhardt of the Guarneri Quartet. It marks a fording of genre by horror director Wes Craven. Gloria Estefan sings the title song. And if it seems as if we're stalling, we are.

A movie with its heart in all the right places--music education in the schools, after all, certainly deserves such a big wet kiss--"Music of the Heart" is not what anyone would call up-tempo. Opening with Roberta being dumped by her husband (the Navy officer for whom she presumably sacrificed her musical career), the film traces her grief-driven move to East Harlem, where she finagles herself a violin program, fights entrenched attitudes and dubious parents and is vindicated by a school concert at which the pupils shine and their families are rapturous.

It's quite moving, actually. Then you realize that the movie still has more than an hour to go. Few moments in Craven's "Nightmare on Elm Street" were as scary as this.

Streep, arguably, has never given a bad performance and she's quite convincing here. Although hardly as prickly as the real Guaspari of "Small Wonders," Streep's Roberta is no saint. She's short-tempered and impolitic and she has a spontaneous affair with an old friend (Aidan Quinn), the one who sends her to East Harlem in the first place.

She's a bit blinkered about the adjustment problems of her sons, both to Harlem and to the divorce. And she's short with her students, to the point of being chastised by principal Janet Williams (Angela Bassett), the one who has to cancel Roberta's program 10 years later when the Board of Education slashes all those "luxury" courses such as music and art.

This sets the stage for the tear-jerking and rather belabored route to a fund-raising concert at Carnegie Hall, featuring Roberta, her kids and an all-star lineup that even includes bluegrass genius Mark O'Connor.

By this point, however, luster has long left the film, because of the cheesy quality of both the script (written, presumably too quickly, by "A Walk on the Moon's" Pamela Gray) and the production itself (there's an embarrassing series of alternating shots at the end, between performers on the Carnegie stage and Streep, who may have been in another state entirely when she was filmed). Basically, "Music of the Heart" has a lot of heart and a lot of music. It just doesn't sing.

* MPAA rating: PG for brief mild language and sensuality. Times guidelines: appropriate for all ages.


'Music of the Heart'

Meryl Streep: Roberta Guaspari

Aidan Quinn: Brian Sinclair

Angela Bassett: Janet Williams

Cloris Leachman: Assunta Guaspari

Gloria Estefan: Isabel Vasquez

Miramax Films presents a Craven/Maddalena film. Director Wes Craven. Producers Marianne Maddalena, Susan Kaplan, Allan Miller, Walter Scheur. Executive producers Sandy Gallin, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein. Screenplay Pamela Gray II. Cinematographer Peter Deming. Editor Patrick Lussier. Costume designer Susan Lyall. Production designer Bruce Alan Miller. Art director Beth Kuhn. Set decorator George DeTitta Jr. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.

In general release.

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