I doubt many people would share my #2 film. It didn’t generate much Oscar buzz, aside from a well-deserved Best Actor nomination for Richard Dreyfuss. It’s not The Godfather or Citizen Kane or Schindler’s List, but what it lacks in stylish camerawork or innovative storytelling, it makes up for in passion and the elevation of unsung heroes. In many cases, the film was my first introduction to certain music, like Beethoven and John Lennon, and it serves as a testament to the power and purpose of the arts in our lives.
Once again, Mr. Holland’s Opus, which is not about a comic strip penguin, is a “meet-‘em-and-move-on” film, but instead of the title teacher “moving on,” he stays put as decades of students pass under his tutelage. In many ways, it’s a combination of my previous two movies. Like Forrest Gump, it follows the triumphs and heartaches of one man through the 1960s, 70s, and beyond, employing archive footage and a well-chosen period soundtrack. Like It’s a Wonderful Life, it features a man whose restricting job comes before his preferred vocation and who, by the end, feels like a failure until an overwhelmingly supportive display of appreciation from his friends. As a fusion of these two stories and a familiar “good teacher” narrative, it becomes a musical journey of the most satisfying kind.
Richard Dreyfuss gives the best performance of his career as Glenn Holland, a composer dreaming of greatness until life gets in the way. He reminds us that teachers are humans like all of us; he deals with the difficulty of starting a marching band, the excitement of childbirth, the disappointment at learning his son is deaf, the unconscious distancing of said son due to said disappointment, and the constant struggle to keep people invested in the arts. Glenne Headley is lovely as his supportive wife Iris, who also feels the strain of having a handicapped child. Olympia Dukakis as Principal Jacobs, W. H. Macy as Vice Principal Wolters, and Jay Thomas as football coach and amateur dancer Bill Meister also give memorable performances, as well as Terrence Howard in his first significant film role as drum-wielding pupil Lou Russ.
The film is full of moments worthy of an admiring sigh. The subplot involving Mr. Holland’s temptation to run off with an aspiring young singer could have gone horribly wrong, yet the film eschews Hollywood risk-taking in favor of marital fidelity. Mr. Holland knows it’s no sin to be tempted but refuses to yield to unrealistic romantic notions. Likewise, his relationship with his deaf son is brilliantly grown over time. His bond with Cole remains undeveloped for the most part, taking a back seat to Glenn’s school and musical endeavors, until Cole himself snaps his father out of his tunnel vision, convincing him that a lack of hearing need not mean a lack of music. This builds to a rare instance of Richard Dreyfuss singing, in a heartfelt concert that makes parents hold their kids a little closer. John Lennon would be proud.
It’s a Wonderful Life always gets my dad wiping his eyes at key scenes, and I’ve told him that Mr. Holland’s Opus is my It’s a Wonderful Life. The ending, featuring Michael Kamen’s glorious “An American Symphony,” inevitably causes a profound joy and satisfaction to well up inside of me, with or without tears. As “meet-‘em-and-move-on” films go, this and The Five People You Meet in Heaven have the best reunion endings, the kind that acts as the culmination of a lifetime, as well as the film.
One more reason to love Mr. Holland’s Opus is that, except for two or three words, it is completely clean, making it a poignant music lesson for the entire family. Perhaps that’s why it didn’t receive more award attention, but I definitely think it deserved further accolades than one Oscar nomination. Even if no one else ranks it as high as I do, Mr. Holland’s Opus is definitely worthy of my #2 spot.
Best line (which sums up this “meet-‘em-and-move-on”): (adult Gertrude Lang) “Look around you. There is not a life in this room that you have not touched, and each one of us is a better person because of you. We are your symphony, Mr. Holland. We are the melodies and the notes of your opus, and we are the music of your life.”Rank: 60 out of 60
© 2015 S. G. Liput
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