A Look Back: Mr. Holland’s Opus

As a former high school band geek, I’m disappointed to realize now how few movies I can remember whose plotline revolves around teens in concert/marching band. “Bandslam” is one, and another was “Drumline,” (about a college marching band), and of course, there’s good old “American Pie,” which, while not primarily about band, nevertheless managed to alter non-initiates’ idea of band camp. (A later sequel would be set in one.) Another came out in the mid-nineties: “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” a very long movie set in high school, featuring a band teacher (Richard Dreyfuss), who spends several decades inspiring his students (but not realizing it until the end). The ‘opus” in the title begins as one thing and winds up ending as quite another – but perhaps a more satisfying one.

Richard initially takes the job as something he sees as a temporary gig because his first love is composing music. His wife, Glenne Headly, is supportive, at least at first, as he negotiates such hazards as indifferent students, bureaucratic interference in his syllabus, and cafeteria food. He does make a friend (Jay Thomas) right off the bat, surprisingly enough the school coach, but their relationship winds up lasting. Still, at first, it’s rough going. When Richard comes home one night and tells Glenne that when he was in high school, he always wanted to be elsewhere – but he had no idea his teachers felt the same way, she clucks in sympathy and then when they transition to the topic of whether they thought their teachers ever “got it on,” Glenne confesses that she was in love with high school music teacher. Later on, this will come back to haunt Richard, but for now, he manages to connect with his class after he starts playing rock and roll. (This also worked well for my middle school teacher, though I hope we weren’t quite as unmotivated as Richard’s students.) When confronted by the stuffy principal and vice-principal on this, he responds that he will use anything if it sparks his students’ interest. Unsurprisingly, he will spar more than once with these two as the years progress.

Each segment is centered around a student that Richard manages to help, as we head toward the present with help from montages signifying the decade changing. First, he gets Alicia Witt to make it all the way through a clarinet piece, which sounds like a small thing – except she goes on to become governor as an adult. The second part involves Richard teaching (yes, I swear) rhythm to Terrence Howard, so he can participate in marching band. This is also when, during the actual performance, it is discovered that Richard’s young son is deaf. His relationship with him can best be described as troubled, though by the end, they do manage to reach a reconciliation of sorts. The third features Richard’s putting on a musical and dealing with a talented ingénue (Jean Louisa Kelly) who may have feelings for him. Finally, fast forward to the present, when Richard is retiring and gets a surprise reunion of all his old students, who then perform his opus. (Spoiler: It’s not that good, but who cares at this point?  If you’ve gotten invested in the movie, you’ll probably choke up at least a bit here.)

Usually, it’s humanities teachers in movies who get to be the inspirational ones, at least in more traditional subjects like English. Here, it’s nice to see that the coach character is an ally, not a foe, though the principal is pretty stereotypical as a foe. This is a movie which is pretty unashamed about trying to jerk those tears, but there are some acerbic zingers scattered throughout the dialogue, which may make a veteran of band nod knowingly. I know that since every year in my high school, the band program would be rumored to be on the chopping block, I laughed out loud when Richard, finding himself in the same potential position, cracks, “The day they cut the football budget in this state, that will be the end of Western Civilization as we know it!”

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