In the early ’80s, the phrase ”independent film” was easy enough to define. It meant a movie made outside the Hollywood system, one that starred actors you’d never heard of and, in all likelihood, concerned itself with the higher spiritual value of wheat farming. But that was before the indie revolution of the ’90s. In the past six years, it’s not just the quantity of independent features (good and bad) that has expanded; it’s the very definition of what an independent movie is. Case in point: Is it something like Grace of My Heart, a pop-saturated, shamelessly emotive rise-of-a-songwriter epic that practically begs you to view it as a latter-day A Star Is Born? Or is it something like Feeling Minnesota, a bleakly absurdist dark-side-of-America art piece about two tussling Midwestern brothers? Both qualify as independent, though, ironically enough, the best of the two is the one that leaves its heart in Hollywood.
Illeana Douglas is the rare actress who can look gooney and awkward one minute, rapturous the next. Her features — piercing eyes and aquiline nose, soft jutting lips — are lovely, yet they don’t quite go together; she lacks the seamless beauty we’re used to in movie stars. When she smiles, though, and you see the yearning in those eyes, her chipmunk face takes on a sensuous Modigliani glow. She’s transfigured — like the young Barbra Streisand — by the fire of her own passion.
In Grace of My Heart, Douglas plays Edna Buxton, a teenage torch singer who wins first prize in a Philadelphia talent pageant and arrives in Manhattan in 1958, only to learn that the epoch of Patti Page-style singers is over. No one wants to hire Edna — that is, until a struggling producer-manager, Joel Millner (John Turturro), agrees to purchase one of her songs. Suddenly, Edna has a new name — Denise Waverly — and a new career: penning three-minute singles for the girl-group era. She’s given an office inside Broadway’s fabled Brill Building, and there, toiling away in semi-obscurity, she begins to churn out hits — punchy, ebullient rock-soul anthems that nevertheless have a tug of sorrow, a ripped-from-the-heart directness that speaks to a new generation of young romantics.
Written and directed by Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging), Grace of My Heart takes off from the life stories of several fabled Brill Building songwriters (notably Carole King), and the early scenes are electrified by Anders’ joy in her subject. We’ve seen more than enough movies about the agony of being a famous rock star, but it’s fresh and thrilling, and very much from a woman’s vantage, to linger on this backstage view. Anders has great fun re-creating the shadow world of pre-counterculture pop, whether she’s showing us a Lesley Gore-like teen idol (Bridget Fonda) quarreling tearfully with her female lover or John Turturro’s bewigged, obsessive-compulsive Joel, a kind of cut-rate Phil Spector who knows a song is great because, as he flutteringly explains, it gets ”in my system.” When Denise falls for a jerky fellow songwriter (Eric Stolz) who tries to sponge off her talent, her pre-feminist innocence makes her a poignant heroine. She has no idea the kind of songs she’s writing are about to change the world.
The emotional high point of Grace of My Heart is Denise’s rendition of ”God Give Me Strength,” a lilting bit of pop melancholy composed by Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach (together again!) that incarnates the movie’s wistful heartache. Unfortunately, that’s also the scene in which she meets her new lover, a schizo-genius rock star/record producer (Matt Dillon) who’s like Brian Wilson recast as a dreamboat. As soon as he starts to spin out of control, the movie does too. Dillon can’t make craziness magnetic (or particularly convincing), and even if he could, we can’t help wondering why Denise keeps getting involved with these losers before she knows anything about them. Once Grace of My Heart leaves the Brill Building, the movie gets stranded in a parade of ’60s cliches. It turns into the most banal of melodramas, complete with a ”tragic” finale that plays as borderline kitsch. Still, there’s no denying Anders’ talent. She should have been content to make a catchy single and not stretched it into an overblown rock opera.
The worst independent feature of last year was the skin-crawlingly ”hip” Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead. The worst one this year (so far) is the aridly ”hip” Feeling Minnesota, in which Keanu Reeves and Vincent D’Onofrio, as brothers locked in a clash of destiny, snarl, glower, and, mostly, beat each other up, so that we come away from almost every scene pummeled by their Midwestern Cain-and-Abel fury. As the woman they both love, Cameron Diaz, sporting dirty-blond hair and a lopsided smirk, plays the kind of dysfunctional yet faithful babe-slut who exists only in the minds of wishful young filmmakers. Written and directed by Steven Baigelman, Feeling Minnesota suggests the excruciating spectacle of Sam Shepard trying to be Quentin Tarantino. It makes even gun battles seem pretentious. Grace of My Heart: B Feeling Minnesota: D