A 1996 film by Allison Anders, telling the story of Edna Buxton (Illeana Douglas), a steel heiress from Philadelphia who becomes a respected singer-songwriter, and who is not at all a No Celebrities Were Harmed version of Carole King. An affectionate look at the Brill Building era, it's also a tender and surprisingly tough-minded portrayal of a talented and independent-minded female protagonist who nevertheless repeatedly sacrifices her own ambitions for the sake of other people, until she learns, well, not to.
Philadelphia, 1960 or so: gawky Edna enters a vocal talent contest in defiance of her mother, who thinks she'll make a fool of herself. Instead, Edna wins, and uses the money to record a demo of her own song. However, the demo producer (Richard Schiff) tactfully lets her know that the music industry no longer wants girl singers. He advises her to go and see producer Joel Milner (John Turturro) at the Brill Building, as there is always a need for songwriters.
Joel takes Edna under his wing and renames her "Denise Waverley", setting her to write songs for a male doo-wop group and introducing her to leftie intellectual fellow songwriter Howard Caszatt (Eric Stoltz). The Unresolved Sexual Tension between Denise and Howard quickly resolves itself, and when she becomes pregnant, they marry.
Joel sets Denise to work with English songwriter Cheryl Steed, on a song for teen ingenue Kelly Porter (Bridget Fonda). Denise and Cheryl are initially wary of each other, but they bond when they realise that Kelly is far more complex and interesting than they thought; the resulting song "My Secret Love" is a hit.
Denise finds that Howard is sleeping with other women, and their marriage breaks down. She embarks on an affair with kindly married DJ John Murray (Bruce Davison), but it becomes clear that he won't leave his family for her when he moves to Chicago. Joel tries to console Denise by letting her record her own song, "God Give Me Strength", and assigns her California music wunderkind Jay Phillips (Matt Dillon) to produce it. To her surprise, Jay loves the song and does a great job, but the record bombs. The Beatles are changing the face of music, and Joel has gone bankrupt. Denise blames herself, but Joel's philosophical.
Denise and Jay fall in love and she goes out to California to be with him, but his behaviour becomes more and more erratic as he has to fight both his own band and his own self-doubt and depression, all the while ingesting heroic quantities of weed.
In the end, the film shows how Denise deals with the various traps life throws at her, struggling to achieve some kind of confidence, wisdom and self-sufficiency.
This film uses the following tropes:
- Beard of Sorrow: Jay grows one when he can't finish his song. When he does finish it, he shaves it off.
- Beatnik: Howard. Peculiar beard? Check. Liberal political opinions? Check. Cardigan, cigarettes, can't keep his wang to himself? Check.
- Big Applesauce: Joel is all about this trope. So is Annie, Denise's childminder: when Joel shows up at the commune, Annie goes over to him saying fervently "Thank you, lord, for New Yorkers!"
- Break-Up Song: 'God Give Me Strength'.
- Brooding Boy, Gentle Girl: Jay thinks that he and Denise have this kind of relationship, and to begin with she's fine with that, but as soon as she expresses the desire to get back to writing songs, his It's All About Me syndrome kicks in and he blows up at her.
- Brutal Honesty: One of the big clues Denise and Cheryl get that Kelly isn't heterosexual is when they're trying to get to know her and she displays this about "dreamboat" Johnny Crawford, who gave her a puppy for her birthday. After Denise and Cheryl go on about how good-looking he is:Kelly: He's very nice...he sweats a lot.
- Career Versus Man: Largely averted, in that Edna's mom is the only character who insists that she should marry a good man rather than make music for a living. It's implied that she finally changes her mind when Denise sends her a copy of her first album.
- The Casanova: Howard, unfortunately.
- Cry Laughing: Edna does this early on, when she learns that no record company is looking for white girl singers.
- Dark and Troubled Past: In-universe, Joel thinks that a steel heiress from Philadelphia called Edna Buxton is never going make it in the music business, so he renames her 'Denise Waverley' and invents a Dark and Troubled Past for her in which she grew up in the 'slums' of 'South Philly'. Edna/Denise plays along, although she's not very comfortable with it:John Murray: I was wondering, is it because of your working class background that you feel free to examine these very real, honest themes in your music?Denise: Um, I can assure you, my background doesn't have anything to do with it.
- Deadpan Snarker: Denise. "Oh Larry. You're so manly."Denise: What exactly did you like about my record? The thickness of the vinyl?
- Determinator: Joel. Nothing keeps him down.
- Eccentric Mentor: Joel is very much this for Denise. She eventually learns to appreciate it.
- Family Versus Career: Averted. Denise has barely started out as a professional songwriter when she gets pregnant, and many of the characters (such as Annie and Cheryl) end up pretty much members of her extended family, so that there's always somebody around to look after the kids.
- Fire-Forged Friends: Denise and Cheryl, who start out disliking each other, but Denise softens towards Cheryl when she sees how Cheryl's husband is a bit of a dick. Their successful collaboration on Kelly's song bonds them together.
- Gayngst: Poor Kelly has a bad case of this, because she's a famous teen ingenue whose sexuality has to be kept secret. Not that she's very good at keeping it secret.Kelly: I mean, people have, you know, certain ideas about me that are created by my publicist and this TV show that I do. They really have no idea who I am or what my life is like, or what I go through [starting to cry] with the person I love. [Tearful Smile]Denise: [sympathetic] You know, Kelly, boy problems are often hard.Kelly: I wouldn't know. -Sorry, I'm fine.
- Genius Ditz: Downplayed with Denise, who when we see her producing her own first album is extremely calm, confident and competent in the studio even though she keeps up a muttered conversation with dead Jay the whole time.
- Played straight with Jay, who is clearly a bit of a flake, but who on hearing Denise perform 'God Give Me Strength' accompanied by just a piano, immediately knows how to make it into a great production and who is later seen directing the studio musicians with great energy and precision.
- Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Averted. When Denise finds out that she's pregnant by Howard for a second time, her marriage is already falling apart and Cheryl convinces her to have an illegal abortion. It's successful, although she finds the whole thing traumatic.
- Heel Realization: Jay's realisation that he's so messed up that he lost Denise and Annie's kids at the museum, doesn't do a lot for his mental health.
- Hollywood Drowning: Averted. Very, very stoned, Jay simply walks into the surf and disappears beneath the waves with no fuss.
- Hope Spot: Denise goes to see Jay and finds out that he's decorated their room with candles and has got wine for them, has finished his song, and shaved off his Beard of Sorrow. She's ecstatic. They make love. She then wants to go out to the clubs, but he says he's going to stay as he wants to do some more work. So she goes out with Cheryl instead, leaving him alone...
- It's All About Me: Jay has this, and the central problem of his relationship with Denise is that he thinks that her desire to have a career in music means that she has it.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Joel is this, although his layer of Jerkass is quite thin and is really a combination of eccentricity and Record Producer bullshit.
- Kavorka Man: John, who has Denise following him around like a puppy dog for most of the film's second act.
- Lipstick Lesbian: Kelly and Marion, although it's the early Sixties and Kelly's a beloved teen idol, so they're in the closet. It takes Denise and Cheryl about 45 seconds to figure it out, though.
- Manchild: Jay, to an extent that makes him a danger to people around him (specifically, Denise's kids, who he takes to the museum and then forgets about.)
- Mood Whiplash: Denise comes home after discovering the truth about Kelly.Denise: [in great good humour] Hey, Howard! Kelly Porter. Boy, she's not the square we thought she was.
[Denise enters the bedroom and finds Howard in bed with another woman.]
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: God, where to start? Edna/Denise is not Carole King. Howard is not Gerry Goffin. Joel is not Phil Spector or Don Kirshner. The Luminaries are not The Shirelles. Kelly is not Lesley Gore. Jay's band The Riptides are not The Beach Boys, and Jay himself is definitely not Brian Wilson.
- Not So Stoic: Most of the film consists of Denise's experiences (divorce, unrequited love, career failure, widowhood) turning her bit by bit from a Pollyanna into a Stoic Woobie. Then Joel decides to have a chat with her.
- Plucky Girl: Denise, who keeps being knocked over and sometimes stays down for a while, but always gets up again.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Denise unleashes a devastating one on Joel during their conversation by the pool, complete with Cluster F-Bomb.
- Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Annie gets a little fed up with commune life.Annie: Fuck Guru Dave! I milked goats, churned butter, bailed hay. I planted radishes, magic mushrooms and weed for five goddamn months, Denise! My spiritual lessons are mastered! I saw God! Let's go!
- Smoking Is Cool: The only times Howard doesn't have a cigarette in his mouth are when he's kissing Denise and any other woman who takes his fancy.
- Soap Box Sadie: Howard is a male version.Denise: So the boy in our song is depressed. Why is he depressed?Howard: Because, he's, he's a Negro, and no-one's gonna hire him.Denise: No, no, no. He's depressed because he knocked up his fourteen-year-old girlfriend.
- Stay in the Kitchen: Mostly averted. Howard admires Denise's talent and they are successful songwriting partners before they fall in love. When she gets pregnant he argues that she isn't going to be able to work, but she basically ignores him and he goes along with it. John is a huge fan of her music and never misses a chance to tell his listeners how great she is. Downplayed with Jay, who admires her talent, produces her first record and does a great job, but when it bombs and she (temporarily) gives up music, he's fine with that and is not pleased when she wants to get back into it again.
- The Stoner: Jay. Lampshaded by Denise.Denise: Well, I mean, he smokes a little grass. And, you know, he does some psychedelics, and mushrooms. And peyote. But he's down on hard drugs.
- Suicide by Sea: Played with. Does Jay intentionally commit suicide or does he just get so fucked up that he wanders into the sea, passes out and drowns? Given his mental state at the time, either is possible.
- Team Mom: By the end of the film, Denise seems to have become this for nearly everyone else.
- Teen Pregnancy: Denise overhears Annie having a tearful conversation with her boyfriend, and her and Howard's resulting song, 'Unwanted Number', is a hit. Averts the darker associations of this trope in that Annie is very sensible and level-headed, and basically joins Denise's family to help care for Denise' own kids as well as her own.
- Vitriolic Best Buds: Joel and Denise.
- Weird Beard: It's not Eldritch Abomination-level weird, but Joel's beard is very odd indeed.