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To watch a movie set in recent decades is to run a reality check on the cast and crew. Are they wearing the accurately awful frocks? Any anachronistic dialogue? In this game of dueling memories we may be no closer to the truth than the filmmakers, but hey, we were there. Any fiction movie becomes, in our eyes, a failed documentary.

In Allison Anders' Grace of My Heart, there's little doubt that the tale of Denise Waverly (Illeana Douglas), who in the early '60s marries a young lyricist (Eric Stoltz) and with him writes a lot of Top 10 hits, is based on the early career of Carole King, who with her husband Gerry Goffin composed some of the best hits--Will You Love Me Tomorrow?, One Fine Day, The Loco-Motion, A Natural Woman--ever to emerge from the Brill Building. Then Anders adds a fantasy Newlywed Game: What if King had married Brian Wilson (Matt Dillon) at his loopiest?

A historian could quibble with details, and Goffin might do more than that: his character is a preening, obnoxious adulterer. But the problem is not historical sense; it's dramatic sense. Nice turns by John Turturro (as a remix of producers Phil Spector and Don Kirshner), Bridget Fonda (as a teen-star lesbian) and Douglas are lost in Anders' reductive message: in the '60s guys were creeps or psychos. Shirelles songs had more insight than that.

Anders' one good idea was to paper the movie with music--not from the period, but newly written by '60s veterans (Burt Bacharach, Joni Mitchell and, oddly, Goffin himself) and a few younger ringers (Elvis Costello, Los Lobos, Sonic Youth) working in the old spirit. These fine tunes recall what was best about that era and point to what this movie should have been. Radio.

--By Richard Corliss