Alison Anders’ fourth film was a magnificent failureâ€”one of the best original movie soundtracks of the 1990s hitched to a middling little drama that no one saw. If it seems like a film with a new Burt Bacharach song and a confessional lesbian love song by Lesley Gore and a revisionist take on Brian Wilson should have found an audience, keep in mind, this film sort of created that audience. “God Give Me Strength,” the beautiful (and, admit it, overlong) love song that Bacharach wrote with Elvis Costello, helped kick off Bacharach’s late career revival. The cracked version of the Beach Boys that appear in “Grace of My Heart” precedes the final (continuing) re-appreciation of Brian Wilson by only a year.
So “Grace of My Heart” has been saved from total obscurity by its soundtrack, as has the other 1960s tribute movie of 1996, “That Thing You Do,” (with songs by Adam Schlesinger of the then-obscure Fountains of Wayne). The rest of the film is an argument for continued obscurity. It’s the story of a Carole King pastiche character, Edna Buxton (a steel heiress who is disowned by her family, in the first cliche added to the already-interesting-enough King story), who falters as a singer on her own, becomes a song factory songwriter (as “Denise Waverly”), and romances her way into the non-Beatles musical dramas of the 1960s–girl groups, crooked DJs, the California scene.
The first problem is with the actress who plays Buxton/Waverly. Illeana Douglas is a strange, avian beauty with a husky voice and lithe body, who looks neither like an heiress nor the “working glass South Philly girl” whom her managers claim she is. She was 31 when this movie was made, although her character, like Carole King, starts out in the music business at age 18–Douglas doesn’t become convincing until halfway through the second act. She can’t sing, but this isn’t a huge problem, as filmmakers found the obscure singer Kristin Vigard to fill out Buxton/Waverly’s vocals, and Vigard both sounds like Douglas and sounds just raw enough to fail as a singer in her own right.
She goes on to live a point-scoring sad 1960s life–a husband who cheats, an illegal abortion, an affair, and a tumultuous romance. One thing Anders does well is take the momentum of all of this away from Buxton/Waverly. Moorless, dependent on a Phil Spector-ish producer (John Tutorro) and a series of men, she does a lot of compromising and apologizing, which feels right, even if Douglas is too pretty to sell some of it. (Why, when living in seclusion in a commune in 1969, does she have washboard abs?)
What feels less right is… well, everything else. There’s no lingering on the things we want to know more about, which means we don’t really get to know the men who capture Buxton/Waverly, and we don’t get enveloped in the settings the way a good period film should be able to do.