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Of My Heart
Starring Illeana Douglas, John Turturro,
Eric Stoltz, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Leigh Warren,
Patsy Kensit and Bridget Fonda
Directed by Allison Anders
Once upon a time the way it worked in the music business was this: A person either performed the music or wrote the music. With a couple of exceptions by minor rock and roll bands, that was the way it was. A big star, like Elvis Presley, did indeed have his name listed as co-writer on his hits, but the King didn't write a word. To be a woman and to want to sing your own songs, well, fuhgeddaboutit.
A King of a different sex was named Carole, and she toiled in the now legendary New York Brill Building writing hit songs for pop singers and girl groups of the early '60s. Neil Sedaka fell in love with her, Gerry Goffin married and wrote hits with her, and when The Beatles put an end to all that came before by writing their own hits, she broke new ground for women by recording the monumental hit album Tapestry. Allison Anders' Grace of My Heart is not the Carole King Story, but it grabs so liberally of the life and times of pop icons King, Phil Spector, and Brian Wilson that you can't help but make the connection. You will also be entranced by its first hour. And, perhaps, appalled by its second.
In that delightful first hour we are introduced to the heiress Edna Buxton (Illeana Douglas), child of a domineering mother who tries to control everything in her daughter's life. Edna wants to be a singer, so she enters a competition. Mom picks the song. Mom picks the dress. Edna rebels and for the first time in her life sets a path which takes her outside the confines of the world of Philadelphia's hoi polloi. That path will bring her to the Brill Building where she finds work from a Phil Spector-ish publisher named Joel Millner (a tremendously entertaining performance by John Turturro) who informs her of the music business facts of life.
He changes Edna's name to Denise Waverly and, as such, she finds success as a writer. She pulls her lower class Philly friends up the ladder, finds lust with a frenetic beatnik (Eric Stoltz), and generally makes a career out of writing songs about secret lives -- keep your eyes open for a hysterically cool cameo by Bridget Fonda -- and hopeless ambitions. Anders and music director Larry Klein ordered up a host of new songs to help recreate the feel of the early 60s, and the songs are expertly woven into the film. Douglas cannot lip synch to save her life, but the other things I could nitpick about are so minor tht they can be easily ignored. The first hour is that good.
Then someone yanks the chain and flushes it all down the crapper. Grace of My Heart shows how the 1960s brought down the entire structure of the music industry. Turturro's Spector clone passes Denise off to a Brian Wilson clone (Matt Dillon) named Jay Phillips in an exceptionally erratic performance. He goes from stoned to tightly focused in one scene. We don't see a progressive self destruction of a genius personality -- which is what happed to Wilson. What we see is a California stereotype paranoid stoner, with compiled supporting characters trying to explain away character development gaps. TV's David Clennon is a Dr. Eugene Landy/Tim Leary guru type; the voice of Peter Fonda is the guru who pulls the story from Malibu to a commune, thankfully forcing the reintroduction of Turturro's character. It's a painful hour in which the audience has to fill in the story gaps.
I'm sorry, Ms. Anders, but there have been two generations born and (almost) grown since the late '60s, and they have no experience whatsoever with the California music scene, or the commune scene, or any of the scenes you assume they will know to understand what has been left out of Grace Of My Heart.
It's disingenuous to look at a 60s dopehead and ask "Is he doing drugs?" In falling back on stereotypes, the audience I sat with (and we all lived through those times) stopped laughing in sympathy. By the time Denise becomes a fully realized Carole King type -- with her own Tapestry-like album -- the audience was laughing derisively; moaning, groaning and writhing in their seats.
Taken all together, I've laid out more of the story than I usually do but, even if you do know the similarities to Carole King, Anders has managed to put together, for the most part, an entertaining movie. Indeed, a female friend of mine who saw the second show bought it hook, line and sinker.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price for Grace Of My Heart, he would have paid . . .
Then again, my friend may be seeing Grace Of My Heart as a "woman succeeding in a male dominated world" story, which it is and which is how it's being positioned for the market. Cranky used to work in the music business, so maybe I'm just a little crotchety when it comes to recreations of things I know too well. If you get that feeling, add a buck.
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