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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Grace of My Heart is a 1996 film that is a very loose interpretation of the life of songwriter Carole King. It spans the late 1950s to the early 1970s, and there's frequent cigarette smoking, beer drinking, and marijuana smoking. A character commits suicide by drowning. We see a topless woman outside on a commune. As the movie covers the heyday of Brill Building songwriters who are trying to make sense of the changing times and attitudes, the songwriters observe firsthand and sing about topics such as extramarital affairs, wedlock, abortion, and closeted lesbians. "F--k" is frequently used, and there also are outdated words such as "Negro." The movie offers an intriguing glimpse into the craft of pop songwriting -- not only coming up with catchy hooks and memorable melodies but also observing how people are experiencing the world and trying to convey that through lyrics. The lead character, played by Illeana Douglas, attains success at a time when the music industry was much more of a boys' club than it is today, and she displays tremendous resiliency, perseverance, and good humor through the tremendous highs and lows of her musical career and love life.
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What's the story?
In GRACE OF MY HEART, Edna Buxton (Illeana Douglas) is the heiress of a wealthy Pennsylvania steel family who wants to be a singer/songwriter. But it's the late 1950s, and her family would prefer that she gets married and settles down. But when she wins a singing contest where first prize is the chance to record a demo in New York City for a record label, Edna moves to the city. She's crushed to learn that the market is glutted with female singers, but the strength of the song she has written leads the producer to put her in contact with one Joel Milner (John Turturro), a fast-talking record producer who gives her song to an all-male African-American singing group, and the song becomes a hit. Milner changes her name to Denise Waverly and invents a blue-collar background for her. She begins work as a songwriter in the legendary Brill Building, where she meets and begins a relationship both in and out of the studio with fellow songwriter Howard Caszatt (Eric Stoltz), with whom she writes songs, marries, and has children. After finding him in bed with another woman, Waverly leaves Caszatt and begins writing songs with a former rival, Cheryl Steed, with whom she writes a hit song for the pop star Kelly Porter called "My Secret Love," a song inspired from witnessing Porter get into an argument with her lesbian lover in the studio. As the 1960s go on, Waverly meets and falls in love with Jay Phillips (Matt Dillon), a brilliant but troubled songwriter who's trying to get his own group beyond its California-surf-song origins. They move in together, but as Phillips begins to lose hold on his sanity as he finds it impossible to create the music that's in his head, he commits suicide by drowning in the ocean. Crushed over her failures in both the music industry and in love, Waverly joins a commune, and it's not until Milner finds her there and tries to help her that she finds the courage to record her own album that chronicles her loves and losses.
Is it any good?
This is a charming, entertaining, and inspiring chronicle of a female singer/songwriter's highs and lows during the tumultuous 1960s. While Grace of my Heart isn't the most historically accurate chronicle of Carole King, the Brill Building, the breakdown Brian Wilson experienced while trying to write material for "Smile," and early 1970s Laurel Canyon, there's a higher truth at work here, one that addresses the boys' club nature of the music industry (especially then) and the groundbreaking work of the songwriters and artists who used pop music as a vehicle by which to express the changing times and attitudes, at a time when songs were supposed to be sugar-coated entertainment that didn't dare address such taboo topics as extramarital affairs and closeted lesbians.
The acting is superb throughout -- Illeana Douglas plays a driven and talented woman who does her best to maintain her good humor and sanity in the midst of men who are condescending producers, philandering husbands, and tortured songwriters losing their grip on reality. As a loose version of Phil Spector, John Turturro brings a kind of goofy and endearing eccentricity to the role. He, like all the equally flawed men in her life, sees the good and talent in Edna Buxton/Denise Waverly that she often doesn't quite see in herself.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Carole King. What did you know about her before watching Grace of My Heart? This movie is very loosely based on her life; how could you learn more about her?
The lead character has her name changed and her background rewritten by the man who has hired her to write hit songs. Why do you think it was common for entertainers -- Jewish-American entertainers in particular -- to change their names?
Where does the movie show the direct correlation between what the songwriters see going on around them and how that carries over into their art? What are some of the topics they attempt to address through the medium of popular music -- topics considered taboo for many of the radio stations at the time, as well as much of the society as a whole?
How does this movie attempt to convey the sexism of the time, in both society and the music industry? How does it show how the times start to change over the roughly 15 years in which this movie takes place?
- In theaters: September 13, 1996
- On DVD or streaming: June 1, 2010
- Cast: Illeana Douglas, Eric Stoltz, Matt Dillon
- Director: Allison Anders
- Studio: Universal Studios Home Entertainment
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Music and Sing-Along
- Character Strengths: Perseverance
- Run time: 116 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: Language, and for some sexuality and drug content.
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