Drew Rothman (Michael Ontkean) lives with three generations of his family in a small New York City apartment, his father Frank (Alex Rocco), teenage brother Raymond (Barry Miller) and grandfather Nathan (Herbert Berghof), and if there’s one thing they’re good at, it isn’t necessarily keeping their cleaning business going, it’s arguing amongst themselves. Drew doesn’t want to stay in this position all his life for he has ambitions to be a singer-songwriter, and he has a regular gig with his band in a local bar, but he has to play accompaniment for strippers which he is not exactly enthused about. He needs his big break, and with that in mind visits a recording booth at the station and makes his own vinyl of a song he penned – but who’s that looking on?
She’s not a producer or an agent or anything like that, she’s a schoolteacher called Rosemarie Lemon and she’s played by Amy Irving fresh off a couple of breakthrough roles in Brian De Palma movies. Unfortunately for Drew, she takes off like Cinderella once they have shared a look, but he does manage to track her down later on the street, and that could solve his other, non-career problem his family hector him about, the fact he doesn’t have any love interest. But there’s a snag: Rosemarie is deaf, and she thinks that will be an impediment to any long-lasting affection, so what can Drew do to persuade her otherwise? I know what you’re thinking, man whose life is music tries to romance deaf girl, it’s a tearjerker of the most idiotic variety, right?
By all appearances Voices really should have been either irksomely contrived or just plain glutinously schmaltzy, yet somehow the script by future director John Herzfeld managed to negotiate the pitfalls his admittedly groan-worthy plot brought up, mostly because it refused to acknowledge the foolishness potentially inherent in the work and played it perfectly straight. You could envisage the Farrelly brothers remaking this with a bunch of bad taste gags awkwardly referencing the main difference between the lovers, her disability and his inability to master their relationship as a result, but Ontkean cultivated a certain rough and ready charm and Irving was sweetness personified, so together you sincerely wished for them to succeed against whatever social mores might have kept them apart.
With a down and dirty grit to the setting, when we were in Drew’s world at least, there was a class difference for which the deafness issue was a neat metaphor, and Herzfeld didn’t labour that, simply let it develop naturally when it amounted to asking the leading man what he should do to woo a woman he finds attractive but who also happens to be out of his league, or so society would have it. He wasn’t lusting after her, Drew was aware of the obstacles and didn’t treat Rosemarie like a trophy to be won, just as she didn’t regard him as some novelty in her life and not to be taken seriously, what made this so winning was that they both genuinely wanted to find the middle ground and see if they could overcome, for example, the misgivings of her mother (Viveca Lindfors), who initially seems like a snobbish baddie.
But then she had a scene where it was made clear she was scared for her daughter and the last thing she wanted was for her to be hurt any more than life had hurt her already, and it became clear a little understanding between people can work wonders for making the world go around. This had a music theme, with Drew’s songs written by the legendary Jimmy Webb and vocalised by rock singer Burton Cummings for Ontkean to mime to, not perhaps hugely convincingly, but if you had made it that far you would likely allow the conceit. Drew was presented as a Billy Joel in waiting, yet there was more to it than that, for in high concept sequences Rosemarie’s own wish is to be a dancer (she can move to the vibrations she feels) and in tandem with her new beau’s drive for success she is encouraged to give up the day job and follow her dream. All this dewy-eyed idealism should have stuck in the craw, but a clutch of fine performances, notably from the Rothman family who offered a working class edge, may well catch you off guard in a disarming tale.