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Grace Of My Heart

Directed by Allison Anders

Cast: Illenna Douglas, John Turturro, Matt Dillon, Eric Stoltz, Patsy Kensit, Bruce Davison, Jennifer Leigh Warren, Bridget Fonda

This is the ultimate chick flick. So why is a guy writing about it? Well, aside from the fact that he takes it as almost a personal insult that this finely-crafted and heartfelt film ran for a mere two weeks in Dublin after opening as part of the 1997 Dublin Film Festival, there’s the musical background to the whole story to further recommend it.




Grace Of My Heart begins in 1958, with heiress Edna Buxton (Douglas) at risk of having her dreams of a career as a singer/songwriter nipped in the bud by her controlling mother. However, after winning a local talent contest singing someone else’s song, Edna moves to New York, only to discover that ‘Girl singers are out, it’s male vocal groups now’. At the Brill Building Edna meets Joel Millner (Turturro), who becomes her manager, changes her name to Denise Waverly, and makes her career - not as a singer, but as a writer of chart-topping, million-selling songs. From her tiny office, Denise bangs out music that will make other people stars.
The Brill Building was the greatest songwriting hothouse of them all, where hundreds of writers toiled in virtual anonymity, penning songs for many of America’s greatest musical stars. From Motown to the surf scene, countless hit records emerged from its halls throughout the fifties and sixties, yet few who composed those songs ever got the fame they deserved.
And so we’re all set for Denise’s romantic and professional travails over the next decade, the latter loosely paralleling that of Carole King, unfolding against the backdrop provided by the evolving music scene in those pivotal years.
The first man in her life, who becomes her husband, is socially conscious fellow Brill Building employee Howard Caszalt, who turns out to be a user and philanderer whose front of politically committed integrity to excuse lack of commercial success merely masks a more fundamental inferiority of talent. After Denise finds him in bed with another woman, they go their separate ways.
Flickering in the background during this period is broadcaster and editor of Songwriter magazine, John Murray (Davison). Unfortunately he’s married, so it doesn’t go anywhere. English songwriter Cheryl Steed (Patsi Kensit) starts working for Millner, and after initial antipathy Denise and her collaborate on ‘My Secret Love’ for closet lesbian teen star, Kelly Porter (Fonda).
Denise’s next big relationship is with Jay Philips, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Brian Wilson, and is the prime mover in The Rip Tides, a thinly-veiled Beach Boys surf outfit. Millner drafts him in to produce Denise’s first solo effort as a singer, the cathartic Bacharach/Costello ballad ‘God Give Me Strength’, which subsequently turned up on the Painted From Memory album. The scene where Denise first demos the song for Jay, accompanied only by piano, is a breathtaking vocal performance, and one of the emotional highlights of the film.
Romance blossoms, and Denise moves out to California, and we pick up with her and Jay living by Malibu beach in 1967. Everything is idyllic for awhile, but then things turn dark, as they always do. Jay’s increasing paranoia prompts Denise to call in Dr ‘Jonesy’ Jones, a Timothy Leary-type headshrinker to artists in crisis. But even he can’t arrest Jay’s downward spiral, and the despairing genius winds up drowning himself in the sea.
Denise moves to Idyllwild commune, in 1970, to ‘deal with it’, planting vegetables, getting back to nature, and listening to too much advice from Guru Dave (voice-over by Peter Fonda) than is really healthy. She is rescued by Millner, who although he lost money on ‘God Give Me Strength’, encourages her to put out an album of her doing her own songs, which gives the film its title. The cover art, and the song itself, suggest Carole King’s Tapestry (King was herself a Brill Building graduate).
Not surprisingly, Grace Of My Heart boasts an incredible score. How it was assembled, though, is phenomenally innovative. Rather than sticking to existing tunes, Anders asked artists from all eras, from the aforementioned Bacharach and Costello to Flea, to write their own period songs. This musical freshness, coupled with riveting performances by Douglas, Warren, Fonda, and a wealth of others, makes the movie a consistently enthralling look into a rarely seen corner of the music biz. What we have is a musical about music making, and like another great musical, Cabaret, it avoids the annoying convention whereby people burst into song while walking the mountains or washing the dishes, since all the songs are presented in the context of a performance within the storyline.
It would be relatively easy to sniff out, if not an out-and-out anti-man, certainly a pro-fem agenda, particularly in the treatment of Stoltz’s character. But hell, men like that do exist. An arguable point, made consistently throughout, is that women, by finding the personal angle, give their songs a greater emotional underpinning. I do not want to be construed as a man who is using feminism to get in with the girls, his sympathy another means of seduction. As all us lads know, ‘chicks dig feminism’. However, the overwrought negative reaction of some men to films like this one (another good example being Jane Campion’s formally perfect and beautifully composed The Piano), leaves me scratching my head at the exaggerated extent of male defensiveness.
The arrival of The Beatles and The Stones from England, bands with their own built-in songwriting machines, meant the days of The Brill Building were numbered. On a trip to New York last year, I found that it is now made up of tailors and mail-order companies. But, regardless of your gender, this is a film to savour if, like me, you have great faith in the power of the popular song, of whatever time, as the poetry of the general populace. It is an affectionate homage, a thoughtful, intelligent movie, by turns sad and joyous, that goes straight for where matters most: the human, and not just a woman’s, heart.

First published in Film West













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