There's a faint irony in the appearance of Martin Scorsese's name as executive producer of Allison Anders' Grace of My Heart (the supervising editor is also Scorsese's trusty Thelma Schoonmaker). Scorsese's Mean Streets was one of two films from 1973, the other being American Graffiti, which established the modern nostalgia soundtrack as we have come to know it and, as often as not, dread it. How many films since then have staked everything on the aural Velcro of the sure-fire Sixties medley? People of a certain age can now experience a sort of feedback loop of recollection, remembering not only the first time they heard "Green Onions" on a juke box, but the first time they felt nostalgic for it, when Harrison Ford in a white shirt drove to the edge of town at the end of American Graffiti.
The soundtrack of Grace of My Heart, by far the most impressive part of the package, is trying for something more ambitious. For this story about the Brill Building in New York, a songwriter sweatshop that from this distance looks like a playground, the film-makers have commissioned new songs, including collaborations between unlikely writers. A case in point would be "God Give Me Strength", a ballad written by Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello.
Scorsese himself tries something similar with New York, New York, his version of the Star is Born theme, which used new songs that offered a potted history of post-war popular music styles, while also expressing what the characters were feeling at the time. That film was Scorsese's big flop, partly because the main characters weren't sufficiently ingratiating.
Grace of My Heart, which gives the Star is Born story what may be its mildest outing yet, isn't about to make the same mistake. Edna Buxton is a steel heiress who turns her back on riches to be a writer of pop songs. What she really wants to do is sing her own material, but there's no market for that in 1959. If her character were a song, you'd want her key changes to be less abrupt - there's not much modulation. She goes from Fifties debutante, accepting her mother's lamentable choice of dress for her big break with resentful docility, directly to independent woman, choosing to starve in New York rather than take the tainted family shilling. Any virginal qualms are shed just as quickly. Howard (Eric Stoltz), seemingly the first man to enter her apartment, is soon collaborating on much more than a song.
Illeana Douglas is pretty but not neutrally so, the most distinctive female face in movies since Geena Davis - though, in fact, with her prominent eyes and occasional sardonic manner she looks a little like Davis's ex, Jeff Goldblum, wonderfully morphed by some computer programme into attractiveness. Douglas has to hold her own, not so much with Stoltz as with John Turturro, who plays Joel Millner, the Brill Building Svengali who signs Edna up when no one else will - but changes her name to Denise Waverly without consulting her. Turturro may not have many more shots at leading roles, like Barton Fink, but he's more than capable of destabilising a film with his excellence. His character here is a lovable mass of neuroses, an entrepreneur with a terror of intimacy who can't quite rip people off as he would like.
As a woman film-maker, Allison Anders is naturally anxious to avoid presenting Edna / Denise as either doormat or Gorgon. The drawback is that not much conflict of any sort is allowed in. The heroine, newly a mother but still working, returns home to feed the baby and catches her husband in flagrante. She picks the baby up and walks out without agonising - with the result that her song of mourning for her marriage, which we hear later, is disconcertingly intense. Joel hires a nubile English songwriter (played by national treasure Patsy Kensit) and the two women hate each other on sight, but soon they are happily collaborating on "My Secret Love", a preposterous piece of evasively confessional melodrama designed for a mainstream star anguished by her love of women. This song, incidentally, if it had really existed, would have been a staple of drag-queen repertoire for the last 30 years.
Joel finally gives Denise her chance to sing, and spares no expense in his choice of producer - Jay Phillips of the Riptides (Matt Dillon). Illeana Douglas's best single scene may be the one where she sings "God Give Me Strength" in front of the total stranger who will decide how the song is arranged and recorded. Shyly she bares her soul, while Jay hides behind his spectacles.
From this point, the film falls victim to its contradictions. Joel goes heroically bust because of his faith in her song, and Denise marries Jay. The film moves from New York to Malibu and decisively from early Sixties to late Sixties with all the attendant fashion horror. Jay is clearly based on Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys - right down to the theremin, the "woo-ee-oo" generator on "Good Vibrations" - with a final decline borrowed from his brother Dennis. At last Denise does get to play doormat, with a child-man who can't be trusted not to lose children and thinks his wife is too talented and spiritual to do anything except look after him. As Jay becomes deranged, the film looks as if it's about to venture into the territory of "What's Love Got To Do With It"?
The logic of the late Sixties was that personal expression was everything, and so the singer / songwriter was born (Grace of My Heart contains a brief fragment of a new Joni Mitchell song). But the Brill Building was based on a quite different idea, that you could have a production line of hits. The ending of the film is a triumph only if you count Carole King's Tapestry (King's career is the most obvious source of the storyline) as a breakthrough work, "you got a friend", a wrenching personal statement. The singer / songwriter, though, could be a stereotypically "personal" artist, just as standardised pop can be infinitely expressive. The director's affections seem to remain with the earlier style, though she continues to pay lip service to the sacredness of individual talents. But perhaps an image from the end of the film is ambiguous - Denise's estranged mother deeply moved by her new album, or perhaps by the sticker on the cover: certificate platinum seller.
On general release from tomorrow
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