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American filmmakers born during the baby boom have been trying -- and failing -- for decades to make a really great rock and roll movie. A few have gotten close -- This Is Spinal Tap and Backbeat pop into mind. But more often such films tend to fall back on the usual rock movie cliches: the rise from poverty and obscurity to stardom; the pathetic love life; the binges of sex, drugs, booze, and ego. From the insipid 1976 remake of A Star Is Born with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson to Bette Midler's thinly veiled Janis Joplin biopic The Rose to Oliver Stone's heavy-handed attempt to unlock The Doors, the song remains the same: Star-struck filmmaker lionizes self-destructive pop icon.
So writer-director Allison Anders (Mi Vida Loca; Gas, Food, Lodging) deserves points for avoiding the usual rock movie traps with Grace of My Heart, an affectionate ode to the behind-the-scenes hit men and women who shaped popular music during rock's infancy. Anders's wide-eyed heroine, Edna Buxton (Illeana Douglas), an aspiring singer turned super-successful songwriter, has an uncanny ability to pen tunes that become platinum hits for others. Deep down, Edna wants to make it on the merits of her voice, but she accedes to the wishes of her producer-manager Joel Millner (John Turturro in top form as a caffeinated Phil Spector-like wunderkind) that she bide her time writing songs until the demand for female pop singers picks up.
Edna's character draws from the experiences of several real-life songwriters, chief among them Carole King. Grace of My Heart hits its highest notes in the early going as nineteen-year-old Edna breaks from her domineering mother's influence and wins a Philadelphia talent contest for her torch singing. First prize is a trip to Manhattan and a bogus recording contract. After knocking about unsuccessfully for the better part of a year, Edna finally catches the ear of fledgling starmaker Millner. (Turturro etches a memorable performance, from Millner's darting eyes and ill-fitting hairpiece to his infectious optimism and unshakable faith in his own instincts.) The producer sets Edna up in a modest office in Broadway's legendary Brill Building (which would soon become a veritable hit-making factory), gives her a new name -- Denise Waverly -- and convinces her to let one of his groups record her songs. Before she knows what hit her, Edna/Denise's compositions are topping the charts.
Unfortunately, while Anders avoids the usual rock movie pitfalls, she indulges the same sweet tooth for generic soap opera melodrama that she did in Mi Vida Loca. Edna doesn't fall prey to the temptations of pills, needles, or booze; love is her drug. This smart-but-naive woman makes three foolish choices, falling for, in succession, a womanizing colleague (Eric Stoltz) who gets her pregnant, a sensitive married guy (Bruce Davison), and a mentally unstable musical genius (Matt Dillon). Each man, in his own fashion, betrays Edna. Grace of My Heart ventures into familiar he-done-her-wrong territory with each romantic failure; if the movie were a song, violins would swell and cymbals would crash.
Luckily, Anders has a gift for keen observation that adds a note of, well, grace to the tired story lines. The overall plot may be conventional but Anders gets so many colorful little details right along the way that you forgive her the narrative shortcomings. In the early going, when Edna spreads her wings as an artist and as a woman, Anders's enthusiasm for the subject translates into an infectious, buoyant screen energy. You can feel the filmmaker's passion for the milieu as well as the characters. Unsinkable Edna's optimism carries her, and the film, through the rough spots, up to and including the hokey fairy tale ending.
Anders's choice of Douglas for her leading lady proves to be a wise move as well. The actress's long nose, flared nostrils, bulging eyes, and rubbery, protruding lips do not conform with classical notions of beauty. In fact, she can look painfully awkward and downright goofy at times. But there's something about Douglas -- the piercing honesty of her gaze, the sensuous vulnerability of her smile, the self-assurance in her voice -- that makes her a compelling figure to watch. There may be nothing new in the story of a strong woman who sacrifices her own success to please the undeserving men in her life, but Illeana Douglas brings such spunk to the role that Grace of My Heart feels fresher than it has any right to. Clearly, her Edna Buxton is no bimbo; the character radiates intelligence, soulfulness, and humor. The same can be said of Grace of My Heart; the film doesn't blow you away with surface beauty and the story is no work of art, but it still has enough going for it to win you over on its own terms. And that's more than you can say for most movies about the pop music business and the people who make it their lives.
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