Pros: Wonderful story of passion, inspiration, how a teacher can touch your life.
Cons: Somewhat far-fetched ending
If we're lucky, we all have had a teacher like Richard Dreyfuss as teacher Glenn Holland in Mr. Holland's Opus. I did, and by coincidence, he was a much beloved high school choir director whose age is about the same as Mr. Holland's, and career spanning very close to the same 35-year period from the early 1960s to the mid-1990s.
Dreyfuss easily and convincingly plays the teacher role. In an interview I saw a few years ago, Dreyfuss said that had he not become an actor, he would have become a history teacher. He makes the transition to music without a hitch.
Trials of a Frustrated Musician
When the story begins in the early 1960s, an ensemble musician, Glenn Holland, and his bride, Iris (Glenne Headly) are just starting out, and Glenn is taking on a gig he definitely feels is temporary until he can make a living composing and performing -- teaching high school music students.
He hates the job, he's not fond of the students, and he's out of the building before the students are when the last afternoon bell rings. Until a feisty but fair principal, Mrs. Jacobs (Olympia Dukakis) makes it clear to him that his job doesn't end when the students go home.
Glenn wants to leave, but Iris becomes pregnant and he must stick it out to pay the bills and get them settled in a house before the baby arrives.
Glenn Gets Into the Teaching Groove
The story unfolds over more some 35 years, and as the movie progresses, we meet some special and memorable students, starting with an insecure red-haired clarinet player (Alicia Witt) who feels like she's the only person in her accomplished family who has no talents. Mr. Holland's gradual transition as a generous mentor and teacher begins with her.
We also meet a young wrestling student (Terrence Dashon Howard) who needs to get into a class he can pass just to stay on the team, so Mr. Holland's coach and buddy Mr. Meister (Jay Thomas) begs him to help the boy learn an instrument -- any instrument.
Closer to the end of his tenure at Kennedy High School, a lovely and talented young student (Jean Louise Kelly) stars in a school Gershwin review. The two become closer than teacher and student normally do, and Iris suspects it. This is more than just a crush -- the girl would really follow through with her plan to take him away from his family after graduation.
Time for Everyone But His Own Son
The significant side plot of the movie is Mr. Holland's realization that his toddler son, Cole, is almost totally deaf. The fact that his son will never hear music the way he hears it is devastating to the point where he avoids the boy altogether.
In the mother role, Headly shines with passion and determination (and anger at Glenn) as she fights for the best school for her son, regardless of cost. She's perfect as the dedicated, loving mother and (usually) understanding wife.
Cole is played by several actors as the time passes, at age 15 by Joseph Anderson, and 28 by Anthony Natale. Both are expressive, talented actors who express their frustration and anger at Mr. Holland, and also their love and understanding. Cole makes his father understand that they can still share their love of music despite his hearing loss.
The two young actors each work to illustrate the healing and eventual thriving of the father-son relationship, and Dreyfuss has chemistry with both.
Add to the daily drama of being a teacher, husband and father, Mr. Holland has been working on a symphonic composition in his spare time -- over about 30 years. It's his one link to his longing to be a famous musician and composer, and he's not ready to let it go completely. The sheets of music sit stacked on his piano at home.
The End of an Era
As it so happened in many high schools in the late 1980s to mid 1990s, the music and arts program at JFK High School are cut, and Mr. Holland's job goes with it.
"They dragged me kicking and screaming into this job, and now, it's the only thing I want to do," he laments to his coach friend, Mr. Meister, who as a coach, still has his job.
But in a somewhat implausible ending, Mr. Holland is surprised with a tribute in the school gymnasium. Students from three decades return to perform his original composition, "An American Symphony" as he conducts.
This is the only part of the movie, thrilling and inspiring as it is, that's simply not as believable as the rest of the very true to life story. It's as if we should buy the premise that a mixed bag of former high school band members can gather, perform Mr. Holland's "opus" and sound like the London Symphony Orchestra (it was, in fact the London Metropolitan Orchestra).
Everywhere else in the movie, the high school musicians are actually high school bands from Vancouver, and throughout the State of Oregon where the movie was filmed.
But even the far-fetched end where the first student Mr. Holland inspired (Witt), returns grown up as the Governor (Joanna Gleason) to tell Mr. Holland, "We, the people in this auditorium, are your symphony..." is acceptable.
You leave hoping that everyone had -- like I had -- a teacher like Mr. Holland in their lives, and that your kids will have a Mr. Holland in their futures.