When I had first heard of this 1999 film called Music of the Heart, I knew that the soundtrack was strongly supported by a hit single appropriately titled “Music of My Heart,” a duet between the defunct boy band *NSYNC and classic songstress Gloria Estefan. I didn’t know that the movie actually starred Meryl Streep as a teacher who tries to come and teach music at an inner-city school in Harlem, but once I knew that, it also sounded to me as though the movie were a knockoff of either Dangerous Minds or Mr. Holland’s Opus. Five years later though, I’m glad that I finally gave this movie a chance…because it may very well have been one of the most overlooked movies of that year.
This film, which is based on a very moving true story, stars Meryl Streep as Roberta Guaspari, the ex-wife of a Navy officer and single mother of two young boys named Nick (played by Michael Angarano at age 7 and Charlie Hofheimer at age 17) and Lexi (played by Henry Dinhofer at 5 and Kieran Culkin at 15). After her husband leaves her, she has no choice but to move back in with her mother (played by the wonderful Cloris Leachman); she faces the realistic possibility that he may not ever be coming back to live with them and she will have to go out into the real world, work for herself and support Nick and Lexi by herself. Roberta, who is a talented violinist, also has a degree in teaching but was never able to get any work experience because she was always moving around with her husband’s occupation, as she later explains to her new potential love interest and old friend Brian (played by Aidan Quinn).
Brian decides to help Roberta out and hooks her up with a meeting with his friend Janet (played by Angela Bassett) – the principal of an inner-city school in East Harlem – to see if Roberta can get a job teaching the violin to some of the kids. Janet is hesitant at first but after Roberta proves herself to be an efficient teacher by having her witness Roberta’s teaching Nick and Lexi, Janet hires her and, together, they start a program dedicated to teaching Harlem kids the violin. While many of her fellow teachers and some parents of her students don’t immediately take a liking to Roberta. Roberta finds a valuable friend and ally in Janet as well as second grade teacher Isabel Vasquez (played by the aforementioned singer Gloria Estefan). Throughout the film we see Roberta honing her teaching techniques and going above and beyond the call of duty to make sure that the kids are doing their best.
In the middle of the film, we jump ahead ten years to find that the violin program Roberta and Janet started in the beginning has been a success and Roberta is now teaching students at three different inner-city schools and over a thousand students have successfully passed through her and went on to become better violin players. Completely out of nowhere though, Roberta is informed that the board of education is being forced to cut budgets and music and fine arts are getting the worst of it and if something doesn’t happen, the violin program could very well discontinue after that semester. Deciding that she isn’t going down without a fight, Roberta rallies parents, teachers and media together in order to prepare for a concert to raise money to save the program so that kids in Harlem can still continue learning the violin, despite whether or not the board of education thinks it’s an important skill to master or not. Through a multitude of different connections and sheer luck, Roberta not only gains several accomplished violinists to play alongside the students during the concert, but she also manages to nail the ultimate setting for this concert: Carnegie Hall. The final scenes of the movie involve the concert itself before we see that the fundraising is successful and Roberta gets to continue teaching.
Before the credits start rolling, we’re greeted with text that lets us in on where the lives of the real characters are today. Roberta’s violin program was reinstated in full during the filming of the movie. Nick, who had stopped playing the violin in favor of the cello, as he grew older, went on to become a very accomplished cellist, while Lexi went in a different route entirely and entered medical school to continue his higher education. Roberta later adopted a daughter named Sophia, who actually appeared in the film as a character named Rosario. The real Roberta Guaspari also served as a violin teacher to the actors in the film, and the real Nick taught Charlie Hofheimer how to play the cello.
This film is a touching story that tells the tale of an inspirational woman who actually lived the film itself, and personally I wish I hadn’t immediately wrote the movie off when I had first heard of it and had immediately gone out to see it instead. Even more surprising is that the film was directed by Wes Craven, who did this film in-between Scream 2 and Scream 3. It was definitely an eye-opener to see that he had a hand in the creation of a movie that wasn’t in his typical horror genre.
See this film, fall in love with it, and possibly make a donation to the Save The Music Foundation…you’ll feel very satisfied afterwards.