The time is the early nineteen-sixties, and heiress to a steel fortune Edna Buxton (Illeana Douglas) wishes to forge her own path in life and not rely on her parents' wealth, so to that end enters a talent contest with a view to becoming a singer. However, her mother (Christina Pickles) still wants to control her and ensures she is wearing the dress she has picked out for her, despite it not fitting properly, pointing out none too kindly the dress is not the problem, Edna is; but when she gets backstage, the girl meets another aspiring performer, Doris Shelley (Jennifer Leigh Warren), and they immediately get on, so swap dresses and Edna takes her advice to ignore her mother's choice of song and song her own preference, with the result she wins a recording contract...
But this wasn't necessarily a film about performing, though that was a big part of it, as writing was just as important, for director Allison Anders based Grace of My Heart loosely on various real life folk from the music industry from pop's golden age of the sixties. This made Edna, or Denise Waverly as she is renamed by her mentor, a stand-in for Carole King, but it would be wrong to expect this to be a faithful biopic as Anders took great liberties with the actual events to craft a sort of fan fiction of a selection of personalities in the music world. Funnily enough, by way of that process she invented a film that could very well have passed for a Hollywood biopic anyway, given how their grip on the facts of their subjects could often be less than firm.
Yes, there was an aspect of asking questions you would never get a reasonable answer to such as "what would happen if Carole King married Brian Wilson?", but that was part of conjuring a milieu of that era of immense creativity in music that at once wanted to be part of it yet also stand apart from it and comment on it, mostly for how women in the industry were so important to it, as talent, consumers and creators, but were neglected thanks to the men holding the purse strings and effectively controlling the supply. Edna, who gets to like being called Denise even if she's not being true to her now hidden social roots thanks to an upper class background coming across as pretty uncool to the target audience, perhaps was encapsulating too much, however.
It seems in Anders' telling her heroine basically had everything that could happen to a writer on her way to becoming a singer-songwriter happen to her in the space of about ten years, and while King certainly had an eventful existence she didn't quite get up to all the things that Denise does here. But that was an aspect of the playfulness of the confection, though to call it that undercut the heartache she suffers; even so, with her so indebted to actual events there was a danger she would not come alive as her own individual character. Thankfully Anders was not slavish in her devotion to one person in particular, though the effect of that was to have movie buffs and music fans pore over the film ever since its release (when it was not a hit) and try to divine who she was referring to when she invented this bit and that bit.
Grace of My Heart was certainly rammed with talent, and Illeana Douglas carried plenty of the film being the central focus everyone else circled around, but John Turturro did very well as the Phil Spector-esque record company executive who didn't start waving guns around, and Patsy Kensit gave a decent account of herself as a rival writer who becomes one of Denise's best friends. Eric Stoltz seemed to be amusing himself as the Gerry Goffin to Douglas' King, though was unable to make him more than shallow in comparison, Bridget Fonda had a neat couple of scenes as a Lesley Gore stand-in, who actually gets a song about her lesbianism by the real Lesley Gore, but Matt Dillon failed to exhibit quite the levels of Wilson bruised genius that you would see in Love and Mercy about twenty years later and his latter half scenes tended to drag their feet. Given most of the performers we saw here were miming (Kristen Vigard was Douglas' singing vocals) which could have been a drawback to convincing replications of vintage studio and concert time, everyone did a rather excellent job of the evocation of an era with other songwriters including Burt Bacharach, Elvis Costello, J. Mascis, Carole Bayer Sager (whose life is also invoked) and the actual Goffin himself; it remained an artificial experience, but very satisfying for enough of it.