Yesterday we marked the death of the lyricist Gerry Goffin with a look at the Golden Age of Brill Building pop that he and his then wife Carole King personified. I thought we'd stick with the theme for this week's Saturday movie date, a thinly disguised Carole King biopic from 1996:
Allison Anders' Grace of My Heart wasn't a big hit in the late Nineties, but it has a terrific leading performance and it's a strong movie until it loses its grip on the narrative in the latter half - round about the time Matt Dillon shows up as the hippie-dippy, schizo-goofy presiding genius of a surf band called the Riptides (ie, he's meant to be Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys). But up till then this picture glows with the director's own pleasure in her subject. Illeana Douglas plays a Carole King-like gal singer called Edna Buxton, from a Pittsburgh steel family, who comes to New York intending to be another Patti Page or Rosemary Clooney, only to find that it's 1958 and the bottom's dropped out of the female vocalist business. So instead she changes her name to Denise Waverley and becomes a songwriter in New York's fabled Brill Building, cranking out pop hits for thinly disguised approximations of the Shirelles and the Everly Brothers. It's a kind of kiddie-pop update on those old biotuners in which JosÃ© Ferrer pretended to be Sigmund Romberg or Cary Grant Cole Porterâ€” or, even better, films like Lady, Be Good in which Ann Sothern and Robert Young play fictional songwriters who sit around pretending to have great difficulty writing songs that have already been written by the Gershwins:
"How about 'Oh, sweet and lovely, can it be true...'? Hmm... 'Oh, sweet and lovely, baby, be mine...' Hmm. 'Baby, be good..?' 'Lady, be good..."
"Hey, that's it!"
Here, the period is early Sixties pop â€” just before the Beatles. But, instead of using golden oldies, Miss Anders has pulled in big names of the period â€” Gerry Goffin, Lesley Gore, Burt Bacharach â€” to write the Sixties pop songs they never got around to writing at the time. For example, Denise is startled to discover that a vanilla-pop teen prom-queen played by Bridget Fonda enjoys a surprisingly Sapphic private life, so she writes her a song about "My Secret Love". This was pretty much the situation the great Lesley Gore found herself in around the time of "It's My Party" and "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows". What's so clever is the way the lyric to "My Secret Love" manages to be both the usual, universal teen angst yet also explicitly address the situation in which Miss Fonda's character finds herself. At such moments, this film has a far shrewder sense of the possibilities of music than, say, Woody Allen did in Everybody Says I Love You, his dreadful musical released around the same time and inexplicably more successful - or, at any rate, less unsuccessful.
The film has a great eye for period detail. I particularly like the names of the fake groups - the Stylettes and the Luminaries. For those who know anything about the period, Miss Anders obviously wanted to follow the arc of Carole King's career: With Gerry Goffin, Miss King wrote a string of pop hits in the early Sixties and then, just when she and her fellow pro songwriters seemed to have been consigned to the scrapheap by the Beatles, she re-emerged with a highly personal album â€” Tapestry â€” which became one of the biggest-selling records ever and made her one of the prototype singer-songwriters. That sounds like a fairly simple three-act structure: rise, crisis, rebirth. Unfortunately, Grace Of My Heart tries to cram in too much, almost as if it's trying to take an inventory of the Sixties, and the result is that Denise's character spends most of her time getting shunted from one jerk lover to another (with an illegal abortion along the way).
Nevertheless, even as it all becomes a bit perfunctory in the latter half, it holds your interest thanks not only to the music but to the luminous performance of Illeana Douglas. Unlike most of Holly wood's bland airbrushed beauties, Miss Douglas looks like a real person, with an array of features â€” saucer eyes, chipmunk cheeks, jutting lower lip, sharp nose â€” that cumulatively wouldn't seem to be leading-lady material. As the film opens, she's protesting that the dress her mom has picked out for the singing contest doesn't fit: "The dress fits the occasion," says mom, sweetly."'It's you who doesn't fit." Well, she switches frocks and switches songs, too: she'd been intending to sing "You'll Never Walk Alone", until a fellow contestant advises her to follow her heart. So, as the opening titles roll, she steps out on stage to sing the Rosie Clooney ballad "Hey, There" (for more on which, listen to our On the Town special from last month here). And suddenly a shy awkward girl from Pittsburgh comes alive. It's a wonderful moment, and, if nothing that follows, quite matches it there are still many pleasures along the way.
The closing credits are given over to a new song "God, Give Me Strength" by Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello. It wasn't a terribly crucial song to the picture, but for mysterious reasons, outside the theater, eventually eclipsed the film, and led to an entire album by Bacharach and Costello, Painted From Memory. I interviewed them about it around the time it came out, and maybe we'll dust that off in the next couple of weeks.