Music of the Heart is a 1999 dramatic/biopic film, directed by Wes Craven (yes, you read correctly, that Wes Craven) and starring Meryl Streep. The film is based on the documentary Small Wonders, which chronicled violinist and educator Roberta Guaspari (Streep) organizing a violin program conducted for inner-city kids in Harlem and eventually holding the "Fiddlefest" concerts to save her program. The film takes place over the course of ten years (1981-1991).
The film opens in 1981 with Roberta as a renowned music educator and performer who just recently divorced George Tzeveras. Needing a job to support herself and her two sons, she accepts a position as a violin teacher in East Harlem.
The film then follows her life as a teacher who has to go through different trials. She organizes a violin program for younger children as she feels any young child could learn to play the violin, and that it will be a good form of expression for the children who are growing up in a tough, tough neighborhood. She inspires troubled students to make something of themselves, change their lives for the better.
By 1991, Roberta has spent her last decade devoted to her students as well as her family. Her program for violinists is still ongoing. Then, her life turns for the worst. The New York City Board of Education decides to make necessary budget cuts. One of the first to go is the music program, leaving Roberta unemployed. In an effort to save her program, she helps her students and alumni, as well as their parents, organize the "Fiddlefest" concerts and invites well-known violinists to play with her. The concert is successful and her music program is saved.
The film earned Meryl Streep Oscar, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild award nominations for her lead performance.
This film contains examples of:
- Abusive Parents: One of Roberta's best students has to give up a shot at Julliard and move away because her father had been committing domestic abuse.
- An Aesop: Every character finishes the film having learnt valuable life lessons.
- "Angry Black Man" Stereotype: Or woman in this case. The mother of one of Roberta's students accuses Roberta of merely teaching "Dead White man's music" and gets angry when she cannot name any Black classical composers or violinists.
- As Himself: All the famous violinists at the concert, including Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, Arnold Steinhardt, Michael Tree, Joshua Bell, Sandra Park, and Mark O'Connor.
- Author Appeal: Wes Craven once explained how he ended up directing this uncharacteristic film, saying that he'd seen Small Wonders and found that the story "appealed to so many things" that he felt compelled to make it (getting a chance to direct something other than a horror movie was a bonus):"I’d been a teacher. I’d been divorced. I’d lived in New York and loved New York. I love all sorts of music, including classical music. It was a great story, and I thought I could get an actress who was top-notch.”
- Award-Bait Song: "Music of My Heart", performed by Gloria Estefan and *NSYNC. Was actually nominated for an Oscar.
- Based on a True Story: and not too loosely either.
- Biopic: This film chronicles the life of Roberta Guaspari from 1981 to 1991.
- The Cameo: The above-mentioned famous violinists.
- Cool Teacher:
- Roberta shuffles back and forth from this. One moment she's harsh and unforgiving, the next she's gentle and encouraging.
- One boy in the first half of the film believes that Roberta is cool because she is not as classically nice as some of his other teachers. Gradually, the students come to respect Roberta's toughness and find some of her outbursts funny.
- Gangbangers: The audience glimpses gang activity in the Harlem housing projects.
- Inner City School: The setting for the whole film.
- Inspirationally Disadvantaged: One of Roberta's first students, a little girl named Guadalupe who is shown wearing leg braces. Her entire purpose in the film is to show Roberta that quitting something just because it's hard is a cop-out. She's also there to showcase Roberta's gentler side.
- Kids Are Cruel: As expected, many of the kids don't take well to learning the violin. "Violins are for sissies" is an often-used phrase. There's also a boy who makes his sister carry his violin case for him, as he is scared that his friends will make fun of him. Another boy knocks over his stand partner's music stand on purpose.
- The Magic Was Inside You All Along: What Roberta hopes the kids will learn as they pick up the instrument.
- A Mother to Her Men: Or rather, "A Mother to Her Students." She becomes a mother figure by helping out her students.
- Pet the Dog: Roberta and her two sons take very good care of their pet dog, Allegra. Just when we think Roberta might've been too nasty to her class earlier in the day, she pets Allegra.
- Private Tutor: Roberta Guaspari is tasked with a violin program conducted for inner-city kids in Harlem.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Roberta often gives verbal beatings to students who don't take their violin-playing seriously.
- Sadist Teacher: Mr. Rausch.
- Save Our Students: Roberta, the kids and the teachers rally together to save the music program from getting its funds cut and being cancelled.
- Screw This, I'm Outta Here: One of Roberta's best students moves out of Harlem owing to her father's domestic abuse.
- Serious Business: Being a violinist, Roberta considers playing it as a serious matter. At the start of the film, when she sees her movers accidentally drop some cases of violins, she's understandably frustrated.
- She Cleans Up Nicely: All the inner-city kids are shown wearing very fancy clothes (including white stockings, hair accessories, branded shoes etc). However, it does look like they've cleaned up a whole lot from that when they are in their suits and dresses at Carnegie Hall.
- Shown Their Work: The depiction of how children are taught to play the violin is very accurate, mostly because the film was made under the supervision of the real Roberta and other famed violinists. The tape markings on the fingerboard and bow, and all the terminology are generally spot-on.
- Survivor Guilt: Ramon feels this after Justin is killed in a drive-by shooting. He regrets telling him to "drop dead" the day before.
- Time Skip: The second half of the film takes place around ten years after the events of the first, and several of Roberta's students, now grown up and accomplished musicians, return to help her with the fund-raising concert. Allegra the dog has also grown up, but she's still pretty jumpy for a 10+ year-old dog.
- White Man's Burden: Several of the children and their mothers don't like that Roberta is trying to play messiah to the kids. It should be noted Roberta herself denies this, which results in a change of heart for one skeptical parent. However, she does tend to cross into this category regardless.
- Wretched Hive: Harlem is portrayed as this.