Elton Writes for Julia  | Ja Rule Struggling  | Happy Birthday, Kurt Vonnegut

Elton John Writes a Song for Julia Roberts

Elton John and Bernie Taupin have written a lovely new song for Julia Roberts' forthcoming film "Mona Lisa Smile."

The song, "The Heart of a Girl," is the only contemporary recording on an outstanding soundtrack of songs from the early 50s on this Christmas release.

An invited audience got to see "Mona Lisa Smile" last night, including friends and family of Roberts, her producer Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, and some members of the public.

Like all of them, I expected to see the female version of "Dead Poets Society" — i.e. a prep-school film about a renegade teacher who fights the system and wins. There's usually a sensitive kid who commits suicide and another one who's the teacher's pet. The rigid headmaster is persuaded by the end of the film that the teacher has changed everyone for the better.

How wrong we were. Yes, there are elements of this formula in "Mona Lisa." It's set at the all-women Wellesley College of 1953. With echoes of "The Group" and "The Women," though, "Mona Lisa Smile" has aspirations that are greater than, say, last year's entry in this category, "The Emperor's Club" or "Dead Poets" or half-dozen other films.

I'm sure it's no coincidence that writers Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal chose the year they did; the world is just on the precipice of rock and roll, the civil-rights movement and a new social, sexual awakening.

Roberts heads an unbelievable ensemble cast that includes stellar performances by Maggie Gyllenhaal, Kirsten Dunst, Marian Seldes, Juliet Stevenson, Julia Stiles and newcomer Ginnifer Goodwin.

Director Mike Newell knows how to manage this kind of cast. He's probably most famous for "Four Weddings and a Funeral," which also required a lot of talented actors to get their big moments.

He's also made some exquisite, if underappreciated, films too, such as "Into the West," "The Good Father," "Enchanted April" and "Dance with a Stranger." You could make quite a nice weekend with a Mike Newell film festival at home.

But I'm sure even Newell was surprised by two performances in "Mona Lisa." Roberts, toning it down from flashier stuff like "Erin Brockovich," gives an understated, graceful energy to Katherine Watson, the teacher who is destined to upset the school.

Her approach and her outcome, though, are quite different than what one would expect in a strictly formulaic effort. For Roberts, this was a good move after winning the Oscar.

The real scene-stealer here, though, is Marcia Gay Harden. Her Nancy character is a lifetime student-turned-teacher at Wellesley, still holding on to some very old values. In other hands, this character might have been a stereotype.

But Harden is a great artist now. Following her Lee Krasner in "Pollock" and her desperate wife in "Mystic River," Harden makes this proper, lonely woman ever so humane. You kind of wish there was more of her.

Will "Mona Lisa" be a Best Picture nominee? I'd say no, because it's going to be pigeon-holed as a "chick flick," although it's likely to be up there for the Golden Globes.

There should also be a lot of high praise for its exacting production values, including costume, art, set decoration and production design. Jane Musky, who also happens to be married to actor Tony Goldwyn, has outdone herself recalling the 1950s that were really still left over from the 1940s.

By the way, if you recognize the female singer with the big orchestra, that's pop star Tori Amos. Music supervisor Randall Poster, as usual, has picked a great selection of songs from the era, all with contemporary singers like Amos, Seal and others doing the honors.

Ja Rule Rules No More

Rapper Ja Rule can't be too happy today. Neither can his label, Def Jam/Murder Inc.

His new album, "Blood In My Eye," sold only about 145,000 copies in its debut week, despite being helped by a mysterious last-minute surge — when hitsdailydouble.com started counting, Ja was looking at more like 110,000 copies.

Those extra CD sales probably can be accounted for by indie stores in urban areas. I mean, that's what the answer always is when that happens.

Problem is: Two years ago, Ja Rule's last album sold 360,000 in its first week. So I would have to say that Ja Rule's reign as low-slung-trouser rapper-slash-Jennifer Lopez accompanist is quite compromised.

How life changes!

More significant, though, is not the fate of Ja Rule, aka Jeffrey Atkins, but the Def Jam hierarchy. The label's chief, Lyor Cohen, still does not have a signed contract at Universal Music Group. He's still reeling from his notorious $60 million lawsuit loss to TVT Records over none other than Ja Rule.

Granted, it's a lot harder to sell records in 2003 than it was in 2001. Last night on the downtown No. 1 train, a young man tried to sell me a bootleg advance copy of Jay-Z's new album. He had two of them with him. Jay-Z is also on Def Jam, and they're counting on people buying real copies when it comes out.

The record business remains a strange and ironic world. Last week, Dreamworks Records, which hasn't had a lot of hits, sold out to Universal. This week, Dreamworks' Nashville branch scored the No. 1 CD with Toby Keith. He sold almost 600,000 copies of his new album. Go figure.

And Sarah McLachlan returned to the charts at No. 2 after several years away. I guess people really missed her. Who knew?

Happy Birthday Kurt Vonnegut, Plus the Coens, Actually

A day late, but whatever: Happy 81st birthday to Kurt Vonnegut. Everyone, go read "Mother Night" right now. I mean it ...

I realized after I mentioned Alison Moyet the other day in the column about Boy George that few Americans know her name. You can hear her singing and buy her albums at www.alisonmoyet.com. "The Singles" album on Columbia Records is the best bet, with classics like "Invisible" and "Wishing You Were Here." She's really one of the great unknown stars of all time ...

I liked Richard Curtis' "Love Actually" a lot. It's like eating a lot of chocolate and washing it down with maple syrup, but boy, the buzz is terrific. Someone said last night that after the premiere they were so high they were being nice to people they didn't like!

Curtis, by the way, spooked Joel and Ethan Coen at the premiere when he told them a friend of his in England liked their movies so much he named his kid "Joel Ethan." At least it wasn't "Barton Fink!"