Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Grace of My Heart (1996)

#39: Grace of My Heart (Allison Anders, 1996)

Of all the many musicals that populate my list, this is probably the most conventional in terms of the classic Hollywood approach perfected in Singin' in the Rain (which Steven covered so well yesterday): viz., just a bunch of crazy kids trying to make it in showbiz. It takes that premise and mixes it up with what is for me a nigh irresistible wantonness trafficking in rock mythology. Grace of My Heart focuses on one of my favorite places and times in rock history, the New York Brill Building pop factories of the early '60s, telling the story of one Edna Buxton (later rechristened Denise Waverly by her manager), an heir to a Pittsburgh fortune who's dying to become a singer while everyone around her is more interested in her talents as a songwriter.

The songs here are uniformly pitch-perfect mimicry of the girl groups and bubblegum and soul acts and folk-rockers of the eras it touches on, and rooted deeply in the movements of the movie's narrative. All by themselves they are worth it. It's never showy about its inventiveness in this regard, but every last bit of music is carefully and lovingly done, and all of it sounds and feels authentic. The cast that director/screenwriter Anders assembles to deliver it is notably terrific as well: the underrated Illeana Douglas in perhaps her best role, Matt Dillon, Eric Stoltz, John Turturro, Bridget Fonda (as Shelley Fabares with a twist), and more.

To give some sense of the kind of mythologizing levels on which the picture operates, in the clip at the link that's Matt Dillon playing a version of Brian Wilson. Illeana Douglas is basically Carole King. And the song, "God Give Me Strength" (written by Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello), will turn out to have a history very similar in shape to "River Deep, Mountain High." It all makes more sense in context, and in its touching resolutions the whole picture works really well.

One last point about the clip: That's not Illeana Douglas singing. It's a singer named Kristen Vigard, who takes the song home better than anyone else ever has. But that version is surprisingly hard to find outside of this clip—it's not on the official soundtrack, which houses the Elvis Costello version that plays across the closing credits. Some small part of me suspects Elvis Costello knows very well how much better her version is than his.

"See, I'm only human, I want him to hurt / I want him / I want him to hurt"

Phil #39: North Dallas Forty (Ted Kotcheff, 1979) (scroll down)
Steven #39: Singin' in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952)

Musicals defeat sports dramas 2-1 in closely contested play. I'm a big fan of Singin' in the Rain too. Phil once again showed his uncanny genius for picking movies I just don't know if I've seen. I'm pretty sure I watched North Dallas Forty once on broadcast TV, but I won't know for sure until the title comes up in my queue.

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