Meryl Streep fiddles while critics--at least this one--burn in "Music of the Heart," a sugary paean to the violin as tool for improved self-esteem.

The movie is suggested by the life of Roberta Guaspari, who has already been featured in the (much better) Oscar-nominated documentary "Small Wonders" in 1996. It takes the Guaspari story both deeper and further. It also, or so it seems to me, manages to invert it exactly, so that it now says the opposite of what the original said.

Guaspari, a dynamo with a genius for teaching, founded an East Harlem classical music program for underprivileged children in the early '80s, establishing violin classes in one of the most blighted of inner-city communities. Contrary to predictions, she thrived, teaching countless children that most difficult of instruments over the years and doubtless enriching lives that would have otherwise gone untouched by classical music.

"Small Wonders" shows a flinty, no-nonsense personality--a Bill Parcells, not a Norv Turner--who believed in challenging her students, not coddling them. If they didn't earn her grudging praise, she didn't give it, paying them off in scorn and anger. She wasn't one for excuses: If you missed class, you were out. You had to commit with your total being or that was it. The music she taught may have come from the heart but it was driven by the brain: That was the source of discipline and will and conscious effort.

This version doesn't entirely omit her flintiness, but it certainly softens it. It begins much earlier and depicts a Guaspari (Streep) wracked with neurotic self-doubt and in full victimization. Abandoned with two small sons by her naval-officer husband and having returned to her mother's house, she weepily yearns for direction and relief. An encounter with an amorously inclined high school chum (played by Aidan Quinn) gets her an interview with an inner-city principal named Janet Williams (the majestic Angela Bassett) in which she broaches the idea of the violin class and campaigns to get it approved, if only temporarily.

But Streep's Guaspari is different from Guaspari's Guaspari: Instead of speaking with the authority of the refined and establishing old-school standards that absolutely must be met, regardless, she's a woman constantly on the edge of a nervous breakdown. All her relationships are problematic, from those with colleagues to those with her children to those with her boyfriends. She hardly ever seems serene. Rather she seems crabby, the nag who's always blowing the hair out of her eyes, or the hysteric whose voice trembles with teary emotion.

This makes her, I suppose, less intimidating and possibly even nicer, but it steers the movie away from its sense of the violin lifestyle as membership in a creative elite that must be strenuously earned. Now the movie heads the other way, offering up an anti-elite full of fabulous inclusiveness and forgiveness where, darn it, everybody's welcome because everybody's equal. In fact, the movie itself doesn't even believe in the power of classical music: It's driven forward not by anybody's 18th-century violin concerto but by the studio-milled synth-pop title tune sung by Gloria Estefan and 'N Sync.

The movie--written by Pamela Gray, who also wrote that '60s fable "Walking on the Moon"--also has great difficulty finding story materials to keep it going. It shunts through possibilities, uses them up and seeks new ones. It's always starting over. Beginning with an account of Guaspari's struggle to initiate the program, it moves on to her romantic life with a couple of anecdotes in keys of depression (Quinn as an untamable writer) and comedy (Jay O. Sanders as a more conventional J-school professor, attracted to her by a personals ad her helpful sons placed in the New York Review of Books).

Finally, it becomes an advertisement for arts education as it settles on her attempts to keep the program going through private donations after being de-funded in the early '90s. This effort climaxes in her campaign to produce "Fiddlefest," a concert for her kids and various violin superstars at Carnegie Hall. The film, directed proficiently but without distinction by horror-meister Wes Craven, reproduces this lovely moment with a stageful of the Big Guys (Isaac Stern, Mark O'Connor, Joshua Bell, Charles Veal Jr., Jonathan Feldman) sawing away in that grand old music box on 57th Street, surrounded by kids.

At any given moment, you may be thinking, "What movie are we in, anyhow?" but you won't be thinking, "What actress is that?" La Steep is La Streep is La Streep. Fleshy, vulnerable, extraordinarily alive, Streep got game. She learned to play the violin for the role, so there's no awkwardness with the instrument, even when, with it tucked under her chin, she's reaching out to interact with her charges. At one point she plays, talks, teaches, acts and hits her marks all in one effortless tapestry of movement. She's fabulous, but then she's almost always fabulous.

Still, to see her stuck in a PC trifle such as this cannot but seem wasteful. Get this woman into "The Trojan Women" or "Long Day's Journey Into Night" or "Sunset Boulevard II: The Prison Years." She's the Stradivarius of actresses, and she deserves to be treated as such.

Music of the Heart (123 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for old-fashioned music--the kind you can't dance to, unless you know the dances of the Viennese court.

CAPTION: Meryl Streep, tugging at heart- and violin strings as a neurotic music teacher.

CAPTION: Gloria Estefan, Meryl Streep and Angela Bassett in a movie where violins play second fiddle to the stars.