Last night, my friend Erik came over with a copy of Allison Anders’s 1996 feature Grace of My Heart. As it’s loosely based on Carole King’s life and I read Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us this past summer, I was eager to see it. I haven’t watched Anders’s Mi Vida Loca or Gas Food Lodging, but I have seen Border Radio, which she co-directed. While Border Radio lacked much of a story, it looked great and is a necessary document of the 80s East L.A. punk scene. Thus, I thought Anders could bring something to a music biopic.
I also miss Illeana Douglas, who I used to see in more things. Remember how rad she was as Nicole Kidman’s sister-in-law in To Die For? I skate on your grave, honey.
Erik told me that Sonic Youth’s “Little Trouble Girl” was originally written for the movie and later added to Washing Machine. In fact, the movie’s songs were written and performed by then-contemporary artists channeling pop nostalgia to evoke the Brill Building, The Beach Boys, and King’s Tapestry. This was a 90s hallmark evident in tribute compilations to Saturday morning cartoons and The Carpenters, as well as with supergroups formed to accompany biopics on The Beatles and glam rock.
So how would the musical contributions and on-screen appearances of Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis, Red Kross, For Real, Jill Sobule, and Juned inform the viewer’s understanding of the period? Also, would they work with compositions written by Elvis Costello, Burt Bacharach, and Joni Mitchell?
As it turns out, the music is the movie’s best asset. The movie has considerable promise and starts off well in its documentation of Edna Buxton’s professional ascendancy as songwriter Denise Waverly at the Brill Building and her struggle to become a female solo artist at a time when female musicians were either singers or songwriters. Thus, sexism and shifting gender norms is at the fore of the movie, which is great, as is its uncommented-upon racial integration. There’s also special attention paid to female collaboration between Waverly and various female pop acts. The movie also foregrounds the kinship between Waverly and songwriter Cheryl Steed (Patsy Kensit), who tap into teen singer Kelly Porter’s (Bridget Fonda) closeted lesbianism — she’s clearly meant to stand in for Lesley Gore — when they write “My Secret Love” for her.
I also like that the movie ends on Waverly cutting her first solo record, Grace of My Heart, which becomes hugely successful and era-defining in much the same way that Tapestry was and continues to be.
The movie’s main problem is that it simply packs too much in and resorts to awkwardly executed high melodrama in the second half. And for some reason, the movie thinks it also needs to tackle Brian Wilson’s onerous pop genius and descent into madness, and thus marries its avatar Jay Phillips to Buxton. There’s the additional misfortune of casting Matt Dillon in the role, who operates on only two modes as an actor: dumb and really dumb.
I’m also not fond of Douglas’s faked singing. While part of this is the movie’s fault, as Kristen Vigard dubbed singing isn’t a convincing match for Douglas, I have a hard time buying the actress’s musical performances throughout.
But to Douglas’s credit, amidst all that goes on in this overstuffed movie, she does a great job conveying how Waverly’s resultant experiences age, jade, and strengthen her. It’s a shame that the movie can’t always rise to the occasion.