Music and movies have frequently gone together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.
Allison Anders’ Grace of my Heart is quite possibly one of the best movies you’ve never watched. Released in 1996, a few weeks before That Thing You Do!, audiences stayed away in favour of Tom Hanks’ similar exploration of trying to make it as a musician in the 1960s. The involvement of Hanks was no doubt a big draw for many, and gained the other pop movie of 1996 considerable publicity.
Not to take anything away from the Hanks film, because it’s a wonderful piece of work. On paper, both films might appear to be similar, and thus play into that thing where Hollywood will make two similar films at the same time: two Robin Hoods in 1991, and two asteroid films in 1998. However, Grace of My Heart is as far from the bubblegum leanings of That Thing You Do’s version of the 1960s as you can get.
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The version of the decade that Hanks concocts in his film is the one that nostalgia will always want to put out there, where everything was fashionable, cool, and fun with very little drama. Anders, on the other hand, takes an approach that sometimes feels like a forerunner for what the television series Mad Men would do for seven seasons. If things had a better ability to balance themselves out, Grace of My Heart would have been a profitable film at the box office, maybe even made a quiet dent at the award ceremonies, and be better remembered, but it’s a piece of work that has fallen by the wayside with only a few critics (Mark Kermode among them) championing the film since its release.
It’s strange to think that there has never been a film about the life and career of Carole King. If you want that, the closest you’ll get is the superb stage play Beautiful, of which a film version has been in development since 2015, with Hanks attached as producer. Grace of My Heart clearly takes inspiration from King’s life and her career path from critically acclaimed songwriter to a successful singer on her own, in this case through a fictional proxy named Edna Buxton, who writes her songs under the pseudonym of Denise Waverly.
The first half of the story charts her time working for The Brill Building, her subsequent success, and eventual partnership with Howard Caszatt (Eric Stoltz), and subsequent marriage to her writing partner that one can tell is not going to last, all of which comes about after failing to make it as a recording artist. The reason given is that female artists are not as popular anymore; a piece of information given to her by a male character.
Anders plays with themes of women having to fight their way in a male-dominated environment, not to mention a brief abortion subplot without battering the audience over the head with its message, but it is still made powerfully clear. Scenes that you might expect to go one way never do; when a new female songwriter named Cheryl (Patsy Kensit) shows up, any other movie, especially one written or directed by a male, might have placed the characters at loggerheads, and that appears at first to be the case. However, the film beautifully wrongfoots the audience and the two become firm friends, and one could argue that it becomes the healthiest relationship in the film. Edna finds true companionship not with the men who come into her life romantically, but by the one woman who becomes her best friend.
When the two find a way to write a song for a big-name pop star played by Bridget Fonda, who is in a secret relationship with a woman, they parlay that information into a beautifully crafted song all about that relationship. It’s at this point that one should point out that a large majority of the songs are written by Burt Bacharach, Elvis Costello and Joni Mitchell, and the soundtrack is near perfect in every way. Like so many films that centre on musicians, the art of creation is hard fought for but a wonderful thing, and dealing as much with songwriting as this film does allows the film to really go to town with what it is to craft lyrics and themes into music.
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The film is in brilliant form when exploring the phenomenon of The Brill Building. Sure, there are creative arguments, but watching these characters in this environment is wonderful, but a harsher reality check comes into play in the second half. Following the disintegration of her marriage to Howard, Edna finds herself falling into the orbit of Jay Phillips (Matt Dillon), a bubblegum pop star with ambitions to be a more artistic producer, who appears to be a combination of Jim Morrison and Phil Specter, but one that has a tragic centre, one that is eventually reminiscent of A Star is Born’s male lead. His eventual death at the end of the film owes a debt to the conclusion of 1954’s version starring Judy Garland and James Mason, with its crashing waves and darkened beach only adding to an overbearing sense of tragedy. If the inclusion of Dillon’s character (and it must be said, Dillon is characteristically brilliant) has any detriment to the film, it’s that it does threaten to take just a smidgeon of the focus away from Illeana Douglas’ performance.
One of the other disappointments about the box office performance and the film being somewhat ignored is that it didn’t turn Douglas into a star. After being a memorable supporting player in To Die For, Goodfellas and Cape Fear, you get the feeling that you’re watching a legitimate star-making performance throughout Grace of My Heart. The future Trailers from Hell guru (and her videos are amongst the many highlights of the website) carries the film on her shoulders. Amongst a supporting cast that also includes Patsy Kensit, John Turturro, Eric Stoltz, Bruce Davison and Matt Dillon, she is a tour de force, the film centred squarely on her for so much of the duration, putting in a performance that is immediately an emotional centre that pulls you into the film’s orbit so powerfully.
Then again, the film’s ace up its sleeve is that powerful conclusion. Once again, it harkens back to A Star is Born which says so much about how pop/rock/music films have their own set of cliches and tropes that they forever rely on. The film evokes not only the emotion of the moment but also the nostalgia of memory and the past, its final song playing over black and white photographs documenting Edna’s journey to achieving her dream, replaying glorious memories that are still within our grasp but forever unobtainable again, the only consolation being that they are memories that exist in the first place. It’s a hard heart that won’t be teary-eyed, especially in the way the film comes full circle to Edna’s mother finally being proud of her daughter. It was the 90s, so naturally Edna’s disapproving mother is played by Christina Pickles.
That Thing You Do! might remain a perennial favourite, and being readily available on Disney+ because of the Disney takeover of Fox means that the film is easily accessible and will most likely remain so for audiences. It has a Disney feel to it also. It’s a film that evokes the feeling of the 60s in somewhat magical ways, even if it’s not getting into the muck of some of the issues that plagued that decade. Sure, the fashions are great, the music is amazing, but it’s easy to forget that for all the aesthetic wonders of that era, there was some genuine ugliness.
Grace of My Heart may not quite plunge itself fully into that muck, but it is there. For all the glorious costumes and brilliant music, there are constant reminders of just how imperfect a time it was, even if the clothes and the music were wonderful. There are dark reminders of racism, sexism and how a woman’s right to choose was not so easy. Like so many women attached romantically to difficult geniuses in the music industry, Edna also has to contend with questions that border on blame after Jay’s death, that is evocative of the type of treatment doled out to Yoko Ono, Courtney Love and Pamela Courson.
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It’s a subtly played moment, but it’s loaded with meaning that is inescapable, which could be said of the entire film. So many pop biopics and narratives about making it in the music industry are either set in the 60s, or begin there, and Grace of My Heart is perhaps one of the few that gets the balance right between a sense of magic and a sense of realism. It never goes as dark as What’s Love Got to do With It, but it never revels in the excess of The Doors or is oblivious to the world away from its protagonists as That Thing You Do!.
Sadly, it’s the type of film that seldom gets made any more; adult and mature in themes, and which relies on great writing, great acting and a story propelled by well-handled themes and characterisation, luxuriating in great actors doing great work. If it were made now, it would most likely be a six- or eight-hour television series for HBO or Netflix (although that is an enticing prospect). It’s a perfectly formed movie, a truly female-driven look into the world of creation, music and achieving one’s dreams. It deserves to be better remembered.