Music of the Heart

USA 1999

Reviewed by Kay Dickinson


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

New York, the present. Roberta Guaspari, a navy wife and talented violinist, is abandoned by her husband. Left to fend for herself and her two sons, she is encouraged by her friend Brian (who later becomes her lover) to teach music at an East Harlem high school as a substitute. Eventually she convinces the sceptical principal to give her a permanent job. After initial classroom chaos, Roberta becomes a successful teacher. She buys a house in Harlem, but ends her relationship with Brian because she senses his lack of commitment.

Ten years later, the still-single Roberta is running three violin programmes at various schools on which photo-journalist Dorothea is writing an article. Roberta's two sons take out a lonely-hearts advertisement in her name. Dan, who works at a journalism school, replies to it but Roberta remains wary. When her courses suddenly lose their funding, Roberta organises a "Fiddlefest" charity concert, encouraged by Dorothea. Dan and Dorothea help to publicise her plight in various newspapers. When the venue for the Fiddlefest is flooded, Dorothea uses contacts - including her husband, the famous violinist Arnold Steinhardt - to rebook the concert at Carnegie Hall with guest appearances from several prestigious violinists. The concert is a resounding success and Roberta's project is rescued.


One might wonder why horror director Wes Craven has taken time off from his usual fare to visit that schmaltziest of subgenres, the teacher film, with Music of the Heart. Yet after a quarter of a century of making slash-'em-ups, one can hardly begrudge him a holiday, even if geared to gain him the respect of the over-25s or maybe even some kind of Oscar nomination. After all, the probable inspiration for Music of the Heart, the documentary Small Wonders (1996) about the real-life violin teacher Roberta Guaspari, was nominated for Best Documentary. No doubt the box-office success of Dangerous Minds, which has virtually the same plot, was also a factor. Something as beloved but staid as the teacher film perhaps works best when abiding by audience expectations. Having bought our tickets, we anticipate a protagonist's battle and an inevitable triumph over an assembly of doubting Thomases. Obedient to these rules, Meryl Streep's naive Roberta enters a rough Harlem school and gradually charms staff and students alike with her plucky post-divorce resolve and her dedication to music education.

However, the standard plotline of a teacher bearing the torch of liberal enlightenment to an educationally bereft group comes off rather dubiously here. Early on, an irate mother withdraws her son from class, indignant at Roberta's blinkered devotion to "the music of dead white men". Roberta wins her over in the end, but there's too much emphasis on endless Bach concerti and not enough on Harlem's own rich musical heritage. Although rap and Hispanic pop pound out intermittently from the soundtrack, they merely act as entry signs into the ghetto during various establishing shots.

Nothing about Music of the Heart really merits a two-hour-plus running time or the focus on a single character. Traditionally well-worn plot footholds such as student crises (here drive-by shootings and domestic violence) are barely put to use. The unwillingness to linger over points of dramatic climax, to wallow in trauma, tragedy and eventual survival leaves us with no one to warm to and no indication of Roberta's specialness as a teacher.

Both Streep and Craven fail to muster the unabashed humanism vital to an enjoyable teacher film. Usually adept at handling ensemble casts, Craven is manifestly less capable when dealing with a solo lead. The plight of the struggling individual is not his forte nor, despite her best efforts, is it Streep's, who seems eerily detached from her role. Endowed with less feminist spirit than Bette Davis in The Corn Is Green (1945), less tearjerking than Robin Williams' character in Dead Poets Society and less rootable-for than Sidney Poitier in To Sir, with Love (1967), Streep leaves us questioning the allure of this supposed pedagogical enchantress who may beguile her pupils, but is unlikely to bewitch anyone living outside the film's narrative.

If the charm of a nativity play (or school concert) multiplies the more one has invested in its child performers, then Music of the Heart's youngsters fail to inspire audience pride. Pamela Gray's rather stingy script hands out only one or two lines per pupil, making rounded characterisation nearly impossible. In fact the coy amateurishness of Isaac Stern, who plays himself towards the film's end, is distinctly more endearing. Apart from Stern's contribution, the ratio of heart-strings to violin strings being plucked is decidedly lop-sided.


Wes Craven
Marianne Maddalena
Walter Scheuer
Allan Miller
Susan Kaplan
Pamela Gray
Inspired by the documentary Small Wonders based on the life story of Roberta Guaspari
Director of Photography
Peter Deming
Patrick Lussier
Gregg Featherman
Production Designer
Bruce Alan Miller
Mason Daring
©Miramax Film Corp.
Production Companies
Miramax Films presents in association with Craven/Maddalena Films
Executive Producers
Bob Weinstein
Harvey Weinstein
Amy Slotnick
Stuart M. Besser
Sandy Gallin
Associate Producers
Nicholas C. Mastandrea
Dan Arredondo
Production Co-ordinator
Lizz Grant
Unit Production Manager
Jane Raab
Location Manager
Gayle Vangrofsky
Post-production Co-ordinator
Tina Anderson
Assistant Directors
Nicholas C. Mastandrea
Jeffrey T. Bernstein
Joan G. Bostwick
Script Supervisor
Sheila G. Waldron
Avy Kaufman
Julie Lichter
Beth Bowling
LA ADR Voice:
L.A. MadDogs
NY ADR Voice:
Sondra James
Talent Co-ordinator
Jonathan Craven
Camera Operator
Bruce MacCallum
Steadicam Operator
Jim McConkey
Special Effects
Efex Specialists
Special Effects Co-ordinator:
Al Griswold
Violin Special Effects Design
Danny Ferrington
Art Director
Beth Kuhn
Set Decorator
George DeTitta Jr
Scenic Artists
Pat Sprott
Janet Rush
Iosif Yusupov
Autumn Jones
Laura G. Gillen
Mike Green
Costume Designer
Susan Lyall
Costume Supervisors
Chuck Casey
Frankie Ritacco
Department Head Make-up
Matiki Anoff
Make-up Artist
Debi Young
Department Head Hair
Anthony Veader
Lisa Hazell
Main/End Title Design
Bob Dawson
Main Titles
Laurel Schulman
Opticals/End Titles
Pacific Title/Mirage
Darin Millett
Jack Hulen
Orchestra Conductor
Bill Elliott
Bruce Fowler
Suzette Moriarty
Ladd McIntosh
Elizabeth Finch
Frank Gallagher
Billy Novick
Martin Brody
Shane Koss
Music Supervisor
Sharon Boyle
Production Music Co-ordinator
Lois DiLivio
Production Music Producer
Mason Daring
Music Co-ordinators
Jason Alexander
David Shacter
Music Editor
Bill Abbott
Scoring Mixer
John Richards
Pre-record Recording Engineers
Tim Boyle
Dennis Sands
Violin Recording Co-ordinator
Kristen Autry
Music Consultant
Young Musc Foundation:
Edye Rugolo
"Turn the Page" by Guy Roche, Shelly Peiken, arranged by Guy Roche,
performed by Aaliyah; "Con sandunga" by Julito Collazo, performed by Tambó featuring Johnny Almendra, Louie Baveo; "The Bridge" by Shawn Moltke, Marlon Williams, performed by MC Shan; "Descargarana" by/performed by Jimmy Bosch; "Salsa Pilón", "Descarga de hoy" by Orlando Valle, performed by Cubanismo!; "Perpetual Motion in A Major", "Allegro, "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star", "Twinkle-Grasshopper", "Go Tell Aunt Rhody", "Lightly Row" arranged by Dr Shinichi Suzuki, performed by The Young Musicians Foundation; "Make the Music with Your Mouth" by Marcel Hall, Marlon Williams, performed by Biz Markie; "Montuno allegre" by Alberto Valladares, performed by Cubanismo!; "Nothing Else" by/performed by Julio Iglesias Jr; "Revancha de amor" by Cesar Lemos, Gizelle D'Cole, arranged by Ric Wake, performed by Gizelle D'Cole; "Symphony Vol. 1" by Marlon Williams, Craig Curry, Antonio Hardy, Nathaniel Wilson, Duval Clear, performed by Marley Marl featuring Master Ace, Craig G., Kool G. Rap, Big Daddy Kane; "Now in Marianao" by Yosvany Terry Cabrera, performed by Cubanismo!; "Roxanne's Revenge" by Roxanne Shanté, Marlon Williams, performed by Roxanne Shanté; "If I'm Not Your Lover" by Teddy Riley, Timothy Gatling, Al B. Sure, performed by Michael Jerome; "Poison" by Kool G. Rap, Marlon Williams, performed by Kool G. Rap, DJ Polo; "Twinkle Medley", "We Shall Overcome" arranged by Mason Daring, performed by The Young Musicians Foundation; "Prelude from Cello Suite No 1 in G Major" by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by The Young Musicians Foundation; "Minuet No 1" by Johann Sebastian Bach, arranged by Dr Shinichi Suzuki, performed by The Young Musicians Foundation; "Can Can" by Jacques Offenbach, arranged by Mason Daring, performed by The Young Musicians Foundation; "Haydn Trio" by Joseph Haydn, performed by The Young Musicians Foundation; "Baila" by Emilio Estefan Jr, Jon Secada, Randall Barlow, George Noriega, arranged by Randall Barlow, Jon Secada, George Noriega, performed by Jennifer Lopez; "Orange Blossom Special" by Ervin T. Rose, arranged by Charls A. Hall, performed by Mark O'Connor & The Young Musicians Foundation; "Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins" by Johann Sebastian Bach, arranged by Dr Shinichi Suzuki, performed by Joshua Bell, Karen Briggs, Jonathan Feldman, Diane Monroe, Mark O'Connor, Sandra Park, Itzhak Perlman, Arnold Steinhardt, Isaac Stern, Michael Tree, Charles Veal Jr and The Young Musicians Foundation; "Music of My Heart" by Diane Warren, performed by Gloria Estefan and NSYNC
Sound Mixer
Michael Barosky
Re-recording Mixers
Terry Porter
Mel Metcalfe
Dean Zupancic
Dubbing Recordists
Judy Nord
Jeanette Cremarosa
Neal Porter
Chris Sparks
Supervising Sound Editor
Todd Toon
Dialogue Editors
Albert Gasser
John Kwiatkowski
Charles W. Ritter
Sound Effects Editor
Adam Kopald
Laura Macias
Doc Kane
Paul Zydel
Dave Bolton
Supervising Editor:
G.W. Brown
Kimberly Harris
Rich Green
Greg Barbanell
Laura Macias
Scott Weber
Piero Mura
Dan Yale
Stunt Co-ordinator
Peter Bucossi
Birds and Animals Unlimited
Animal Handler
Susan Humphrey
Film Extract
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Meryl Streep
Roberta Guaspari
Aidan Quinn
Brian Sinclair
Gloria Estefan
Isabel Vasquez
Angela Bassett
Janet Williams
Jane Leeves
Cloris Leachman
Assunta Guaspari
Kieran Culkin
Lexi at 15
Charlie Hofheimer
Nick at 17
Jay O. Sanders
Josh Pais
Olga Merediz
Ramon's mother
Michael Angarano
Nick at 7
Jade Yorker
DeSean at 11
Eva Loomis
Justin Spaulding
Naeem at 9
Dominic Walters
Jean Luke Figueroa
Henry Dinhofer
Lexi at 5
Robert Ari
Teddy Coluca
taxi driver
Barbara Gonzalez
Janet's secretary
Victoria Gomez
Lucy at 10
Justin Pierre Edmund
Bongo Kid
Zoe Sternbach-Taubman
Guadalupe at 9
Christopher Lopez
Ruben Jared Seraballs
Lucy Nonas-Barnes
Rosalyn Coleman
Mrs Adisa
Kevin Miller
hall boy
Hazel J. Medina
Iraida Polanco
Asha Sapp
Betsy Aidem
Mrs Lamb
Julie Janney
flight attendant
Cole Hawkins
Lawrence at 5
Arthur French
Edmund Wilkinson
Sheetrock man
French Napier
Socorro Santiago
Lucy's mother
Sam Fox Royston
Melay Araya
Asease Korankyi
Myra Lucretia Taylor
Christian Berreondo
Ramon's brother
Leilani Irvin
Sophia Guaspari
Adam Lefevre
Mr Klein
Rafael John Alan Hines
Jordan Ware
Amanda Muchnick
Ian Quinlan
Naeem Jones
Mateo Gomez
Ramon's father
Rosalyn Benniman
woman at Opus meeting
Leon Addison Brown
Mr Adams
Arnold Steinhardt
Scott Cumberbatch
Lawrence at 15
Majid R. Khaliq
Naeem at 19
Molly Gia Foresta
Guadalupe at 19
Cristina Gomez
Lucy at 20
Omari Toomer
DeSean at 21
Tarik Lowe
Justin Daly
Isaac Stern
Isaiah Sheffer
Carnegie Hall concert director
Mark O'Connor
Michael Tree
Charles Veal Jr
Karen Briggs
Itzhak Perlman
Sandra Park
Diane Monroe
Joshua Bell
Jonathan Feldman
Dyllon Rogers
horse hair boy
April Davis
first grade girl
Anibal Crooklyn Cuevas
frog hair boy
Sam Deutch
Lucy Little
Jose Miguel Rojas
Andrew Mayer
violin students 1988
Rebecca Dinhofer
Christopher Katrandjian
Ama Korankyi
Chantilly Mariani
Thomas Martin
violin students 1998
Buena Vista International (UK)
11,163 feet
124 minutes 2 seconds
Dolby digital/Digital DTS sound/SDDS
Colour by
Prints by
DeLuxe Laboratories
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011