This might have been a vital film about women in music if gifted writer and director Allison Anders (Gas, Food Lodging; Mi Vida Loca) had known when to quit. Interest is instantly aroused when singer/songwriter Denise Waverly, energetically played by Illeana Douglas and sung by Kristen Vigard, enters New York’s Brill Building in 1958 and begins writing tunes for girl groups instead of guys. Think Carole King and the Ronettes or the Dixie Cups. Nutso Joel Millner (John Turturro in a funny and touching turn) is her musical mentor. Think Phil Spector. Howard Caszatt (Eric Stoltz) is her husband and partner. Think Gerry Goffin. Kelly Porter (Bridget Fonda) asks her to write a forbidden-passion ballad, “My Secret Love.” Think Lesley Gore.
Get it? Grace of My Heart is fiction, although Denise’s journey from ’50s handmaiden to ’70s star as a woman of independent voice mirrors King’s career tapestry. Names have been changed. Ditto songs. Maybe the rights cost too much. Anders and music producer Larry Klein team Brill Building vets with new kids to create sound-alikes. The results are mixed, ranging from spot-on (Gerry Goffin and Los Lobos on “In Another World”) to strained (Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello on “God Give Me Strength”).
Still, the Brill Building stuff with Douglas, Turturro and Patsy Kensit (as another Denise collaborator) creating the songs the whole world sings gives the movie its charm, ardor and fleeting authenticity. Trouble starts when Anders moves from New York to the California surf scene. Denise marries acidhead composer Jay Phillips (Matt Dillon) — think Brian Wilson — and the movie turns soapier than A Star Is Born. You wonder who’s next for Denise: Jagger, Jacko, Madonna? It’s too bad. Anders let something special slip away.