Allison Anders’s Fictionalized Brill Building Melodramatic Musical Arrives to Blu-ray.
DIRECTED BY ALLISON ANDERS/1996
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: NOVEMBER 17, 2020/SCORPION RELEASING (VIA KINO LORBER)
“God Give me Strength”.
That’s not just a mantra for troubled times; it’s also a song. The song is not only a classy keeper courtesy of Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach (hailing from their moment of mid-1990s collaboration); it’s also a centerpiece performance by Illeana Douglas in the film Grace of My Heart (hailing from that moment of mid-1990s indie cinema fervor that ever so briefly elevated filmmaker Allison Anders near to the mainstream spotlight). Grace of My Heart is a drama set in the recording industry of the 1960s; in that, it’s also something of a period backstage musical. Douglas carries the film as celebrated self-made songwriter/singer Denise Waverly; actually, she’s just plain old Edna Buxton, a heiress from a background of discontentment.
The this-but-thats of Grace of My Heart stop right about there. Written by Anders and firmly rooted in the distinct corner of early-rock n’ roll that was the songwriting mecca of The Brill Building in New York City, protagonist Denise Waverly seems to be a Carole King surrogate of sorts with shots of Joni Mitchell. Indeed, Grace of My Heart is one of those “real-world adjacent” movies, wherein all known actual bands and individuals related to its story have been name-changed and altered (Lesley Gore, The Everly Brothers, The Beach Boys) while the ones that don’t directly impact anything here are left alone (The Beatles, the whole of the British Invasion).
Denise (rebranded as such) hits the scene with a whimper, going to work writing songs for the never-not-cartoony and bombastically Italian record producer Joel Milner (John Turturro in a dopey wig doing a halfway-Pacino impression). Her initial goal of being both a singer and a songwriter- unheard-of then in an industry dominated by male artists- is quickly relegated to the back burner of life as she marries charming playboy Howard (Eric Stoltz) and quickly has a baby girl. This relationship proved to be more of a complication than a satisfaction.
As Grace of My Heart cuts its music-laden path through its insular version of the 1960s, Denise’s plights and situations become no simpler. Bruce Davison (a kindly but married radio DJ) and Matt Dillon (a troubled Brian Wilson surrogate, excellently lost in his own head) also come and go as lovers in her life. The Dillion segment is a particularly interesting; an odd detour from actual history as it pairs two musical geniuses together and then explores the outcome. All the while, the film’s bevy of original songs are consistently outstanding. This, along with the sturdiness of Douglas’s performance, are the best aspects of Grace of My Heart. It’s very 1960s production design is a close second.
Grace of my Heart is produced by Martin Scorsese and occasionally features his voice as an underutilized narrator (apparently filling in narrative gaps realized after the fact). The Scorsese connection likely brought onboard his ace editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. Schoonmaker (presumably working beside two other credited editors, though they generally go unmentioned in Anders’ audio commentary track) makes the not-uninteresting but generally unremarkable story pop in ways occasionally innovative. Though boasting rather ambitious scope in comparison with Anders’s previous veeeerrry indie work (Gas Food Lodging; Border Radio), there are still seams that show in the filming of Grace of My Heart. Schnoonmaker has always had a deft way of shoring up most any such shortcomings.
After a long time of being unavailable on Blu-ray without having to spend plenty of money on a non-domestic release, Grace of My Heart has dropped in the U.S. The Scorpion Releasing disc (via Kino Lorber) is worth the wait, offering a very handsome transfer and solid lossless sound, as well as a number of vintage extras. “The Idea Becomes a Movie: Making-of Doc” (from 1999) runs an impressive forty-two minutes, with interviews with most the key creators, including Anders and Scorsese. Anders also has a rather forthright audio commentary on which she spells out just how personal the relationship aspects of the film’s story are for her. There are also deleted scenes and the film’s trailer.
With Grace of My Heart, while not quite a classic in its own right, Anders clearly cut its melodramatic cloth from the earlier work of Douglas Sirk and other storytellers of subtle style. She wisely worked hard to keep Denise Waverly’s fictionalized life within the realistic parameters of how a woman at that time would’ve lived and operated. The temptation to “go big” with contemporary (1990s) feminist proclamations is completely avoided, resulting in an utterly forthright portrait of a very real, yet made-up woman. Through the tumultuous decade that happens around her, she been given all the strength she needs.