The 1960s were chock-full of fascinating musical figures, many of whom with larger-than-life tales to tell, yet director Allison Anders uses a fictitious counterpart (said to be loosely based on Carol King) as the basis of her follow up to failed anthology comedy, Four Rooms (1995). Now released on DVD for the first time, Grace of My Heart (1996) might have benefited from using a real-life template to inject a little more personality into what is an unremarkable, if well-meaning, pseudo-biopic.
Exec produced by none other than Martin Scorsese (his long-time collaborator Thelma Schumacher is also credited as one of the editors), the film’s lead Ileana Douglas was his partner at the time and that, combined with Scorsese’s own love of music from that era, must have been the reasons why he’d put his weight behind such an undernourished project. Douglas plays Edna Buxton, a steel heiress from Philadelphia with a terrific voice and a keen ear for song-writing who is trying to catch a break at an unfortunate time in pop history when female singers are falling out of favour and teenybopper boy bands are all the rage.
Edna comes into contact with nebbish Jewish svengali (John Turturro) who changes her name to the more appealing sounding Denise Waverly and instead pitches her as a songwriter for hire. Her music is an instant hit, and thus begins a successful career but a turbulent personal life which sees her marry an emotionally aloof beatnik producer (Eric Stoltz), before settling down with an East Coast Brian Wilson-like tortured genius (Matt Dillon). Anders’ lead actress more than capably carries the film, making the transition from wide-eyed ingénue to embittered middle-aged widow with ease, but essentially it’s an underwritten part. The character’s social dichotomy is never satisfyingly explored and we seldom get under her skin or discover what makes her tick as an artist, apart from a brief life informing art song-writing process early on. Grace of My Heart is an episodic affair, enlivened by some memorable, specially commissioned songs (including Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach effort God Give Me Strength) but it often has the weight of a TV movie, not helped by the unforgivably sloppy digital transfer here. If you want a film with strong, emotionally complex female figures, try hunting down Anders’ vastly superior Gas, Food Lodging (1992) instead.
Adam Lowes | @adlow76