140 Character Movie Review – #140RVW
Masterful biopic-style film from Allison Anders with phenomenal music. A true original, it’s a career highlight for both Anders & Douglas…
Spoiler-free Movie Review of Grace of My Heart:
Regular readers of this site may be surprised to hear that Grace of My Heart is one of my all time favorite films. It really is, though. I love the scope of the story as it covers several decades of the music business, feeling like a time capsule, but without the treacle of a Forrest Gump. Well, without too much treacle…
The film is sort of loosely based on the life of Carole King, one of the greatest artists of all time. It isn’t a slightly obscured biography a la Citizen Kane, though. King’s story sort of provides the structure and framework upon which a story inspired by a songwriter/performer like King is hung. Most of the events and details are a patchwork of many stories from the times in which they depict, based on a variety of people in the business. The effect is compelling; it will have you running to Wikipedia to see how closely it follows Carole King’s life. Spoiler alert: not very, but as I said, it’s not meant to – it’s not an unauthorized biography…
Illeana Douglas plays Edna Buxton, heiress to a steel magnate, who tries to throw off the role her family has laid out for her by becoming a singer. From the very opening moments of the film, Grace of My Heart makes it clear that we’re not in for a feel-good film. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not a gut-wrenching drama, but this is a film that isn’t afraid of real emotion and the messiness of life. Edna aspires to follow her dream in the face of blistering marginalization and disapproval from her mother. The tone of the film and the challenges and baggage laid on our protagonist are defined right at the outset when her mother metaphorically and literally saddles Edna with an outfit that obscures her: “The dress fits the occasion. It’s you who doesn’t fit.” One of the most damaging, spirit-shredding pieces of dialogue I’ve ever heard.
One of the nicest pieces about the film is how characters are introduced into the narrative, where they will weave in and out of the story throughout the years. This is Edna’s journey, but there are these great characters that are absolutely integral to her tale. The first of these is a fellow singing contestant, Doris Shelley (played by an incredibly charming Jennifer Leigh Warren), who may be the most positive, selfless influence in the picture. Doris convinces Edna to be true to her own vision, following her dream to New York City and a series of rejections. Female singers are out of fashion and Edna is persuaded to put her singing career on hold while writing songs for other artists at the storied Brill Building.
This setting is one of the things that makes this story so electric. I find this time in music history fascinating, during the second and last renaissance of the hit factories, as the studio system reclaimed the Tin Pan Alley power that had been threatened by rock and roll. In the end, the changes wrought when The Beatles tore down the structure were in the best interest of popular music, but there is something captivating about this era. The idea that careers and hits went throughout their entire life cycle in one building is very romantic. One location teeming with songwriters pounding out ideas on dusty pianos while their competition worked in the next room; recording artists, studio musicians, producers and publishers waiting nearby to turn the fresh competitions into vinyl gold – it’s a very vivid picture.
Edna is introduced into this world by Joel Milner, a bewigged and natty mensch played by an inspired John Turturro in one of his most fun roles. Joel is incredibly enjoyable to watch, partly because Turturro is being such a ham, but mainly because the character has a real consistency to him; he wants to be cutthroat and preserves his “all business” approach, while clearly being full of heart. He remains Edna’s constant through all of her twists and turns.
Because the protagonist is so defined by her mother’s disapproval; Edna’s feelings of inadequacy in the face of her obvious talent are heartbreaking to observe, as she repeatedly lets herself be obscured by the men she loves. She has all the strength she needs, but seems to feel that she needs to ally herself with more confident men.
The story takes interesting turns in setting as it moves through the days of doo-wop, pop, surf, folk, soul and the cultures of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. With all the wigs and costume changes it can feel a little Forrest Gumpy-time capsule at times, but I don’t know how you avoid that. Any period piece that has to cover those three decades in one picture is going to suffer the same fate.
There are a lot of great acting performances in the film, from stars with sizable roles like Matt Dillon, Eric Stoltz & Bruce Davison, to lesser known talents like Patsy Kensit (as fellow songwriter Cheryl Steed) and particularly Tracy Vilar as Annie, the young girl who follows Edna throughout the story. A few well known actors turn up for small but meaningful parts, like Bridget Fonda & Richard Schiff
The film belongs to the lead, though. Illeana Douglas is a star – not sure why everyone else hasn’t realized it yet. She completely owns this role, which is award material, if anyone was paying attention (they weren’t).
Finally, the music. Featuring one of the best soundtracks I own, music is of course central to the film, but it really deserves its own praise. A number of big talents were brought in to team up with artists from another era, and the result is truly outstanding. The most notable collaboration was Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach teaming up for the show-stopping “God Give Me Strength”. They enjoyed the process so much that the duo collaborated on an album immediately following their work on the film. But theirs is far from the only success, with Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis contributing several compositions, a second Costello tune, and lots of tunes written and/or produced by Carole King collaborators Gerry Goffin & Larry Klein: listing of songs
Kristen Vigard recorded the vocals for all of the tunes sung by Edna/Denise Waverly (Douglas), and it’s a great fit – what a dynamite singer. One of the highlights of the film is an uninterrupted performance of “God Give Me Strength” with just piano and voice. It is brave and brilliant, and that’s what I would say about Grace of My Heart as a whole…
The Representation Test Score: A (13 pts)
|Main Cast||Illeana Douglas Denise Waverly/Edna Buxton, John Turturro Joel Millner, Sissy Boyd Dress Saleswoman, Christina Pickles Mrs. Buxton|
|Release Date||Fri 13 Sep 1996 UTC|
|Genres||Comedy, Drama, Music|
|Plot||An aspiring singer, Denise Waverly/Edna Buxton, sacrifices her own singing career to write hit songs that launch the careers of other singers…|
|Tagline||For years her songs brought fame to other people. Then she found her own voice.|
|Writers||Allison Anders (written by)|