Revisited: Mr. Holland’s Opus

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

In 1965, Glenn Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) is a professional musician and composer who has been relatively successful in the exhausting life of a musical performer. However, in an attempt to enjoy more free time with his young wife, Iris (Glenne Headly), and to enable him to compose a piece of orchestral music, the 30-year-old Holland accepts a teaching position.

Unfortunately for Holland, he is soon forced to realize that his position as a music teacher makes him a marginalized figure in the faculty’s hierarchy. He comes face to face with how seriously he is outranked by the high school’s football coach, Bill (Jay Thomas), who ultimately becomes his best friend. Administrators, such as vice principal Gene Wolters (William H. Macy), dislike him, while others, including principal Helen Jacobs (Olympia Dukakis), remind him that he should not teach just because of financial reasons. It is Mrs. Jacobs’ scolding that helps Holland turn a corner. He starts to use rock and roll as a way to help children understand classical music. Reluctantly, he begins seeing his students as individuals and finds ways to help them excel.

When Iris becomes pregnant, Holland uses the money saved up for his orchestrating to buy a house. Their son Cole is born sometime during the summer after his first year of teaching. Holland is then assigned to be in charge of the school marching band. Bill helps him in exchange for allowing football player Louis Russ (Terrence Howard) to play the drums for academic credit.

The film marks the passing decades with newsreels about Vietnam, corresponding to the tragic combat death of Louis, and the death of John Lennon in 1980. The passage of time and the mysteries of personal growth are a frequent underlying theme in this film.

Holland’s lack of quality time with his wife becomes problematic when their son, Cole, is diagnosed as deaf. Holland reacts with hostility to the news that he can never teach the joys of music to his own child. His wife willingly learns American Sign Language to communicate with their son, but Holland learns at a much slower rate, causing further estrangement within the family.

Through three decades, Holland becomes closer to students at John F. Kennedy High School than he is with his own son. At one point in the film, he is briefly tempted by the shining talent of a young female student, who invites him to leave his stressful, unsatisfying life and run off to New York City with her. When Holland expresses to Cole the assumption that he cannot understand what music means to his father, Cole lashes out and reveals that he does appreciate music but needs his father to reach out to him. The incident encourages Holland to find different ways for Cole and other deaf children understand music, and he puts on a concert for them during which he sings and signs Beautiful Boy, directing the song towards Cole.

Holland addresses a series of challenges created by people who are either skeptical of, or hostile towards, the idea of musical excellence within the walls of the average middle-class American high school. He inspires many students, but never has time for himself or his family, forever delaying the composition of his own orchestral composition. Ultimately, he reaches an age when it is too late to realistically find financial backing or ever have it performed.

In 1995, the adversaries of the Kennedy High music program win a decisive institutional victory. Holland’s longtime adversary Gene Wolters, assigned school principal when Jacobs retired, works with the school board to eliminate music, along with the rest of the fine arts program, in the name of necessary budget cuts, thereby leading to Glenn’s early retirement at the age of 60. Glenn is a realist who realizes that his working life is over. He believes that his former students have mostly forgotten him.

On his final day as a teacher, Iris and an adult Cole (who is now a teacher himself) arrive to help Holland pack up. Feeling despondent over his self-perceived lack of achievement, Holland is led to the school auditorium, where his professional life is surprisingly redeemed. Hearing that their beloved teacher is retiring, hundreds of his former pupils have secretly returned to the school to celebrate his career.

Holland’s orchestral piece, never before heard in public, has been put before the musicians by his wife and son. One of his most musically challenged students, Gertrude Lang (Alicia Witt as a child and Joanna Gleason as an adult), who has become governor of the state, sits in with her clarinet. Gertrude and the other alumni ask the retiring teacher to serve as their conductor for the premiere performance of Mr. Holland’s Opus (“The American Symphony”). A proud Iris and Cole look on, appreciating the affection and respect that Holland receives.

REVIEW:

I don’t know where I’d be without the music teachers in my life because, truth be told, the only thing I was ever any good at was music. Well, I was decent at ROTC stuff, but major dad (not the show) took care of that. Mr. Holland’s Opus reminds us all of how important music teachers are in the lives and development of their students (that is not to say that other teachers aren’t as important). The question here is, why is this something that deserves a movie and is it worth watching?

What is this about?

Decades pass after a musician takes a high school teaching job, thinking it’s just an obstacle to reaching his true calling: writing a historic opus.

What did I like?

Say it ain’t so, Coach. A popular stereotype is that the “band geeks” and “jocks” can’t stand each other. Conventional wisdom would have us believe that this comes from coaches and band directors hatred/disdain for each other. I know that’s how it was for me in high school, even though there were a few that burned the candle at both ends. Surprisingly, though, this film throws that out the window. On Mr. Holland’s first day, as he is standing in the lunch line, the P.E. coach comes through, tells him teachers don’t wait in line and a lifelong friendship is started. This is the kind of thing we need to see more of, don’t you think? Coaches can’t always be complete dumb jocks who never grew out of that bully stage of their lives, now can they?

Music in our schools. Sadly, the film’s final act is prefaced with the nightmare of every teacher who isn’t a (football) coach or core curriculum instructor…budget cuts. I don’t need to tell you what got cut, do I? Yes, the music department. Well, all the arts apparently. As an advocate for music in our schools, I could go on some long diatribe about how this happens everyday in our country, but this is not the place. However, as I said with Music of the Heart and Our Song, this brings the plight of our youth, and what is being taken away from them, to the public eye. Richard Dreyfuss has a line in this scene that sums it up best, “…you can cut the arts as much as you want, Gene. Sooner or later, these kids aren’t going to have anything to read or write about.”

High school. Nine times out of ten, when it comes to films about high school, the focus is on the horny and/or overdramatic teenagers. Am I right? Yes, there will be a subplot involving certain teachers, but only just. What is different about this film is that is focuses solely on Mr. Holland and 2 or 3 other faculty members throughout the entire film. As far as students go, there is one that is focused on for each year the film chooses, such as a young Alicia Witt struggling with her clarinet, or Terrence Howard (in his film debut) trying to find the beat, or the lovelorn Jean Louisa Kelly, who brings down the house with her rendition of “Someone to Watch Over Me”. Those three are important, yes, but they aren’t central to the film’s plot, even though Alicia Witt’s character returns for the finale.

What didn’t I like?

Time lapse. So, the film takes its time going through the later half of the 60s, but fast-forwards through the 70s, stops in 1980 to honor John Lennon’s death, then skips the rest of the 80s and end is 1995. I wouldn’t have such an issue with this, except that is seems as if this was done just to save time. There is no real reason to suddenly skip through all those years, especially since the film moves so slow through the 60s!

Performance. First off, with the exception of the final performance, and maybe the one at the school for the deaf, it seemed as if the band/orchestra selections were played by high schoolers, rather than a college band or professionals in a studio *COUGH* Drumline *COUGH*. However, they still didn’t convey that they were actually playing. As a trumpet player myself, it is easiest for me to pick them out, especially when they’re holding the horn with the wrong hand and pressing down multiple keys in rapid succession when only a single note is being played. My other issue is with Richard Dreyfuss’ conducting. It doesn’t matter if you’re left-handed or not, the baton goes in your right hand and your left is used to emote, cue, etc. I give kudos for trying to make it look authentic, but that is a major detail that whoever taught him failed to mention.

Long gig. Man, when Mr. Holland woke up that first day in 1965 to start this teaching gig, I’m sure the last thing he thought was that he’d be doing it for 30 years. The guy was a professional musician. Oh wait…was he? From what we can infer, it seems like it, and the gigs just dried up, but the film never specifically says that is what he was. I don’t really know why, either. All it would have taken is one line to say what he was doing before he started teaching and that’s it, but no, guess that was too much.

Mr. Holland’s Opus has a special place in my heart, and always will, because it shows that teachers make a lasting impression on their students, whether they realize it then or down the road. It also has a great variety of music from its trip through time, including a Gershwin revue, brings up issues that are still relevant today, and takes some chances with tropes that have been popular since tropes began. For me, there isn’t much wrong with this film, except for a few nitpicky things. I highly, highly recommend this as a film to see before you die! So, go check it out!

5 out of 5 stars

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