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R: ARCHIVE, S: MOVIES, D: 10/28/1999,

Music of the Heart

Does the spectacle of violins on the screen encourage the same in real life? More to the point is whether Wes Craven of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame can get tears to flow as readily as blood as he makes his first foray into the terrifying realm of tearjerkers. Helping his cause is a resonant true story (the subject of the 1996 Oscar-winning documentary Small Wonders) and Meryl Streep, who's chirpy, snappy, vulnerable, and a wise-ass as Roberta Guaspari, a single mother of two trying to get a job as a violin teacher in a Harlem public school. She gets appointed as a sub by the overburdened skeptical principal (Angela Bassett), and after 10 years of the various disharmonies of self-doubt, a non-committal boyfriend (Aidan Quinn), a captious mother (Cloris Leachman), outraged parents, skinflint bureaucrats, and recalcitrant pupils, she's put together a public-school program responsible for exposing thousands of inner-city kids to the violin.

And what good is that in the midst of urban turmoil? Music might have been more convincing in its argument for the redeeming power of art had it shown a bit more reality -- the most contentious family seems to be Guaspari's, and drugs and guns don't appear to exist. Also, Craven seems awkward without special effects; the surefire audience-pleasing moments -- like the climactic "Fiddlefest," in which Isaac Stern and Itzhak Perlman join Guaspari's students on the Carnegie Hall stage for a fundraising concert -- are downright stodgy. Audience-pleasing Music certainly is, but whether it comes from the heart or directly from the tearducts is another question.

-- Peter Keough