Mr. Holland's Opus (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When The American President was released, many knowledgeable movie-goers commented how the sentimentality of its "feel good" storyline recalled the work of director Frank Capra. Now, with Mr. Holland's Opus, another Capra-esque motion picture has reached today's theaters. Similar in theme and content to Dead Poets' Society and It's a Wonderful Life, this movie persuades its audience that no life spent in a worthy pursuit is ever wasted. Unlike The American President, however, it doesn't stoop to heavy-handed proselytizing. And, while no one will accuse Mr. Holland's Opus of getting its message across subtly, it's a more dramatically secure picture than Rob Reiner's -- when it manipulates, it does so skillfully.

Mr. Holland's Opus spans thirty-one years in the life of a high school music teacher. When Glenn Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) first comes to the newly-dedicated JFK High School in 1964, he has a dream of spending a few years teaching to accumulate a nest egg, then returning to his true passion: composing. His loving wife, Iris (Glenne Headly) is completely supportive -- until she becomes pregnant. After that unexpected event, teaching is no longer just Glenn's "fall back position". It has become his means to provide for his family.

Yet Glenn finds that instructing students in music appreciation has its rewards. When lectures and text assignments don't fire his pupils' passion for the subject, Glenn tries unique ways of encouraging an understanding that "playing music is supposed to be fun -- it's about heart... not notes on a page." Repeatedly during his three decades of teaching, Glenn chooses boys and girls with special skills to nurture and encourage. In the process, he creates a deep loyalty among JFK's student body while straining the harmony of his home life. His wife and son wonder if Glenn cares more about his pupils than about them.

The musical metaphors in Mr. Holland's Opus are rather obvious, and the soundtrack is an effective mix of pop tunes, classical compositions, and Michael Kamen's score. While no film this decade has equaled the accomplishment of Krzysztof Kieslowski and Zbigniew Preisner in wedding music and visuals for 1993's Blue, Mr. Holland's Opus has moments when it comes close.

Like It's a Wonderful Life, this movie is about appreciating the value of every person's effort to better the lives of others irrespective of the individual cost. Dead Poets' Society told a similar story in a similar setting with similar themes, but Mr. Holland's Opus has enough singular material to preserve its unique identity. Those who prize the message and tone of those other pictures, however, will almost certainly enjoy this one.

Most of the time, when Hollywood wants to show changes to a character over a significant span of time, a relatively young actor is used, and the aging process is accomplished via (usually fake-looking) makeup. For Mr. Holland's Opus, the film makers tried the opposite, choosing a performer whose actual age closely matches the final age of the main character, then using makeup to rejuvenate him for the film's early sequences. Surprisingly, the result doesn't excessively stretch credibility, although Richard Dreyfuss never looks thirty (possibly forty). As always, the actor turns in a strong performance, regardless of how old Mr. Holland is supposed to be. Supporting players like Glenne Headly, Jay Thomas (as one of Glenn's teaching buddies), Olympia Dukakis (as a crusty principal), Alicia Witt (as Glenn's first "project"), and Jean Louisa Kelly (as a student with a crush on her music teacher) keep Mr. Holland's Opus in tune.

In recent years, it has become common practice for movie studios to release at least one emotionally stirring drama around the holiday season. In 1992, it was Scent of a Woman. In 1993, Shadowlands. Last year, Nobody's Fool. Flaws aside, one common element in these films is that each focuses on the triumph of the human spirit, using a story that seeks to touch the heart. Mr. Holland's Opus deserves a place in their ranks. It's a symphony of solid storytelling and good feeling that pays tribute to Hollywood's rarely-seen, gentler side.

Mr. Holland's Opus (United States, 1995)

Director: Stephen Herek
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Glenne Headly, Olympia Dukakis, W.H. Macy, Jay Thomas, Alicia Witt, Jean Louisa Kelly, Terrence Howard
Screenplay: Patrick Duncan
Cinematography: Oliver Wood
Music: Michael Kamen
U.S. Distributor: Hollywood Pictures
Run Time: 2:22
U.S. Release Date: 1996-01-19
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1