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Film / Mr. Holland's Opus

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"Why is everyone else's child more important than your child?"
Iris Holland

Mr. Holland's Opus is a 1995 drama film directed by Stephen Herek and starring Richard Dreyfuss. It was partly intended as a remake of a previous film, Follow Me, Boys! (1966), but ended up very different. Among the most significant changes was the historical era covered; while the original film was set in the 1930s and '40s, this one covers a period of thirty years from 1965 to 1995.

The film opens in 1965, with Glenn Holland (Dreyfuss) as a professional musical performer who wants to turn his efforts to composing a piece of orchestral music, something he intends as his Magnum Opus. Needing a job that pays enough to support himself and his wife Iris (Glenne Headly), yet leaves him with enough free time to compose music, Holland accepts a position as a high school music teacher. However, he soon discovers the position leaves him firmly at the bottom of the school's faculty hierarchy, and as his apathy towards the job becomes more apparent, Principal Helen Jacobs (Olympia Dukakis) starts demanding more actual effort from him.

The film then follows his life with a specific segment devoted to each decade and different trials he has to go through. His domestic problems include his only son Cole being effectively deaf and unable to understand his father's work. Iris forms a strong bond with the boy and learns sign language to better communicate. Glenn, however, can't bring himself to do it, and ends up somewhat estranged from his own family. Meanwhile, his educational work turns out to include more than teaching music; he inspires troubled students to make something of themselves, changing their lives for the better.

By 1995, Holland has spent most of his last three decades devoted to his students, at the cost of his personal life. His musical work is still incomplete and by now unlikely to ever see release, and even if completed, he is too old to re-establish his career. Then things take a turn for the worse: the school's new principal Gene Wolters (William H. Macy), who never much cared for Holland anyway, decides to make necessary budget cuts. Among the first things to go are the music classes, leaving 60-year-old Holland unemployed. Holland, fearing that he has wasted his life, resigns himself to the fate of being forgotten by all those students he helped over the years.

Instead, he finds many of his former students have returned to help him complete his Magnum Opus and perform it for the first time, pointing out that their lives were made better because of him, and they repay the favor. The film ends with his family sitting among an entire auditorium of his students, both past and present, who have gathered to witness the aging Mr. Holland conduct his masterpiece.

The film was critically praised, with Richard Dreyfuss' performance earning him Best Actor Academy Award and Golden Globe Award nominations. It was also a considerable box office hit, earning almost $83 million in the U.S. (making it the 12th most successful film of its year domestically) and over $106 million internationally. Michael Kamen, who composed some of the original music for the film, went on to found the Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation, devoted to "enabling more students to participate and experience a quality music education."

This film provides examples of:

  • The Alleged Car: Played with. Mr. Holland arrives for his first day at JFK High in a Chevy Corvair, encountering Vice-Principal Wolters who regards the car as a piece of junk. The Corvair remains an unfocused part of the film, with Cole seen working on its engine in the 1980s segment. By the ending, Cole has taken ownership of the car, telling his father, "It's a classic! You can't have it back."
  • Author Appeal: Done In-Universe when Holland stages a concert designed specifically for the hearing impaired, including lights timed with the music, inviting the deaf community to sit close so they can feel the beat and ending with Holland singing a song and signing it in American Sign Language.
  • Bittersweet Ending:
    • Due to budget cuts, Mr. Holland is laid off after 30 years as a music teacher However, on his last day, he is given a surprise concert in his honor, where he finally makes his initial dream come true and is given a giant roar of applause once it's over. However, the music and art classes are still cut from the curriculum.
    • Lou Russ's arc. He starts as a determined but not naturally gifted student. When Coach Meisters orders Mr. Holland to not give up on him, however, teacher and student bond over the extra drum lessons. This convinces Russ that if he can master drums, he can do anything. Though he dies in Vietnam, he receives full honors at his funeral.
  • Book Dumb: Louis Russ didn't seem to be stupid but is simply not good with grades. Everyone says that he tries hard and is an excellent athlete. As band is based largely on effort that's why Meister requested Mr. Holland take him in and improve his grades so he can go out for football and wrestling.
  • Book Ends: The beginning of the film has Mr. Holland conducting his opus that was in his head. The ending has him conducting it for real.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Stadler, one of Mr. Holland's students he helps. He eventually turns around after attending Louis Russ' funeral with Mr. Holland.
    • Lou Russ is a complete inversion—not naturally academic, but willing to bust his butt to graduate.
  • Bus Crash: Lou Russ dies in Vietnam. Mr. Holland is close to tears when attending his funeral.
  • Call-Back: During the Lou Russ segment, one boy in the band empties his spit valve on the shoe of the girl next to him, which Mr. Holland calls him out on. He repeats this as an adult at the final orchestra.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Cole delivers one of these towards his father after John Lennon's death when the latter claims he wouldn't understand the significance of the event. Cole then goes on a rant towards his father that, despite being deaf, John Lennon and rock and roll mean quite a bit to him. He also calls out his father with how he's refused to try and connect through music with Cole and instead spends more time teaching other kids before finishing his rant by calling his father an asshole. All this leads to Mr. Holland realizing how he's been neglecting his son and thus makes attempts to change.
  • Camp Gay: Todd, who certainly has musical theater chops.
  • Character Development:
    • The beginning has Mr. Holland going into teaching kicking and screaming. At the end, when fired, he leaves the system fighting as hard as he can.
    • Mr. Holland finally connects with his students by showing them the influences of classical music on modern music. When Wolters complains about how Glenn is using rock and roll to teach music, Glenn is passionate in his defense.
      Glenn: Mrs. Jacobs, you tell them that I am teaching music, and that I will use anything from Beethoven to Billie Holiday to rock and roll, if I think it'll help me teach a student to love music.
      Helen: (smiling faintly) That's an acceptable answer. I can tell them that.
    • Lou Russ is a determined student, but not naturally gifted at academics or music. After realizing he can't give up on Russ, Mr. Holland starts giving him extra drum lessons. Lou genuinely starts enjoying the rhythm of percussion and gets applause from all his classmates when he figures out how to play.
    • Stadler goes from a cocky but brilliant student to a mellow and mature adult by the end. It all started near Lou Russ' funeral.
    • The first student he really helped - shy, meek Gertrude - gained enough self-confidence and courage and fortitude to become governor of their state.
  • Dancing Bear: Invoked. To get people to come to the musical, Coach Meister suggests that they use the high school football team as the dancers. People will come to watch them make fools of themselves, but Meister — who minored in modern dance — teaches them to dance well.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Inevitable with the 30 year time span, but most notably when Helen notes many parents still think of rock and roll as the devil's music.
  • Disabled Means Helpless: Iris becomes upset with a specialist who insisted that Cole must learn to talk, without using sign language. She says the specialist thinks deaf people are retarded, and pushes for Cole to go to the deaf school so he can learn to sign and thus communicate more effectively.
  • Dress Code: There is a scene where the principal sees that two girls are wearing skirts that are too short, so he sends them home.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Mr. Holland takes a summer job as an instructor of student drivers. Ironically, one scene has him doing the crazy driving with two of his visibly worried students as passengers. He ignores traffic signs and signals, passes other cars on the right side, and even traverses a one-way street in the wrong direction, all while going well above the speed limit. The reason for this insane driving is revealed when Mr. Holland reaches his destination: it's the local hospital, where his wife had given birth to their son shortly before he got there.
  • Due to the Dead: Lou Russ receives a military funeral with full honors.
  • Era Establishing Scene: One of these follows each major time skip in the story.
  • Extremely Lengthy Creation: In-Universe. Mr. Holland begins working on his opus in 1965, and takes a temp job teaching music to support this. It still isn't done 30 years later when his position is terminated. That doesn't stop his former students from coming together to perform it at his retirement party, though.
  • Fan Myopia: Invoked. When John Lennon is assassinated, Holland is surprised to find out that Lennon means something to his deaf son.
  • Father To His Students: Mr. Holland becomes one of these over time as he helps all his students out. They repay the love at the end.
  • Description Cut: Several, one with regards to Louis getting excited over playing the drums (probably expecting something more glamorous like the snares) and cutting to him playing the bass drum. Another happens with Principal Jacobs asking Mr. Holland what he knew about marching bands and his Oh, Crap! look jumps to him out on the field with the band.
  • Hard Truth Aesop: Trying to seek perfection is a worthwhile goal but it means that your work may never see the light of day. Mr. Holland's opus only gets performed when he is laid off.
  • Hidden Depths: Coach Meister reveals that he minored in dancing in college, and demonstrates with some moves. Sure enough, he's able to get the football players to dance well in the school play, as well as whip the marching band into shape.
  • Ignorant of the Call: This trope applies to this movie so much that it could have easily been called Ignorant of the Call: The Motion Picture. Glenn Holland believes he wasted his life because he became a music teacher instead of becoming famous as a composer. His current and former students, his friends, and his family (all of whose lives he shaped for the better) disagree. Strongly disagree.
  • I Minored in Tropology: It becomes a minor plot point that that the school's physical education teacher "minored in modern dance".
  • Irony: Mr. Holland muses that he went into teaching kicking and screaming, and now he's kicking and screaming to remain a teacher.
  • Magnum Opus: By the time Holland completes his symphony, it appears he will be unable to find the financial backing to ever hear it performed. In the end, many of his former students and colleagues secretly gather on the day of his forced retirement from teaching and surprise him by performing his symphony for him. The question of whether the "Mr. Holland's opus" of the title refers to the symphony itself or the sum of all the lives he has touched over his career is left as an exercise for the viewer.
  • The Muse: Mr. Holland is inspired by student Rowena Morgan (Jean Louisa Kelly) and begins writing music again. Iris, however, is devastated when she discovers "Rowena's Song"
  • Named After Somebody Famous: Coltraine Gershwin "Cole" Holland.
  • No Ending: None of the real issues are resolved at the end, and they don't really need to be for the main points of the film to get across
  • Odd Couple: Mr. Holland's closest friend ends up being the gym teacher Bill Meister.
  • Overshadowed by Awesome: Gertrude took her struggles with playing the clarinet so hard because her family were all over-achievers and she felt inadequate next to them.
  • Power of Trust: Iris has every reason to think something funny was going on between Glenn and Rowena, especially since Glenn was being secretive of Rowena and even named a movement of his opus after her, but her trust is rewarded in that Glenn was being fatherly toward her, with no interest in romance.
  • Pre Ass Kicking One Liner: Coach Meister to the badly marching Marching Band.
    Meister: Ladies and gentlemen, I'm Coach Meister. Your marching buddy.
  • Precision F-Strike: Cole gives one to his father. Thanks to his relative unfamiliarity with ASL, it's a delayed PFS.
    Glenn: What does this [makes ASL sign] mean?
    Iris: It means "asshole".
  • Present-Day Past: In the 1980 segment, Cole has a Kurt Cobain haircut, giving us a very clear reminder that the movie is from the mid-'90s.
  • Real Men Wear Pink: The football coach minored in Modern Dance in college and choreographs the big dance number in the school musical. He also shrewdly uses it, because people will be expecting his football players, who he trains for the play, to be stumbling all over the stage and will come for the spectacle... but be blown away by the dancing.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech:
    • Principal Jacobs gives Holland a verbal beating when she notices how much he doesn't care about his work. Later Coach Meister gives one to him when Holland says he cannot teach Lou Russ, a willing eager student.
    • Glenn gives one to Stadler, an intelligent student with a rotten attitude, i.e. "This class is called music appreciation. As far as I can tell, you don't appreciate ANYTHING."
    • At the end because budget cuts are costing Mr. Holland his job, he gives one to now Principal Wolters.
      Glenn: [looking at Helen's portrait] Jacobs would have fought this.
      Gene: She would have lost.
      Glenn: Yes, she would have lost but she would have fought. And so will I!
      • He gives an even harsher one to the school board over the issue of cutting the arts, particularly addressed at the superintendent, a former student of his
    • Iris gives her husband one when he fails to attend Cole's science fair in favor of working. Cole's enraged speech to Holland (signed, and interpreted by Iris) could also be considered one of these.
  • Repaying for the One: As Serendipity Shock below mentions, all of Glenn Holland's surviving students have returned to perform his magnum opus.
  • The Reveal: Iris realizes Cole is deaf when all the other kids at a parade the fire truck siren hurts people's ears and compels them to cover them while Cole remains in an undisturbed sleep.
  • Secret Relationship: Between Glenn and Rowena. Played with in that it's not infidelity (though Rowena seems to want to). Rather, Glenn just wants a talented student to succeed at her art, shipping her off to New York to live with friends who will help her. Iris finds out who Rowena is, and harbors fears Glenn did cheat on her. Those issues are never resolved on-screen, however. (It's possible with some minor sleuthing, Iris will realize that Glenn had no interest in her sexually.)
  • Serendipity Shock: Glenn is completely beside himself when it's revealed that all of his surviving students have returned to perform his magnum opus.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Heavily on the idealistic and heartfelt.
  • Steel Ear Drums: Averted during the parade scene; see The Reveal above.
  • Take Our Word for It: The "symphony" at the end of the film is okay, but really nothing to write home about — but then if the composer really wrote something as wonderful as it was supposed to be, he would have published it on his own. It is best described as Hollywood Classical, very Salieri-like.
  • Taps: Heard at Russ' funeral.
  • Teacher/Student Romance: it's heavily implied that Rowena had something of a crush on Glenn, and he may have reciprocated somewhat (although he only ever kissed her goodbye on the cheek).
  • Terrible Interviewees Montage: The auditions for the musical are classic. Although, he claims one male student, Billy Faraday, has sufficient talent be Gershwin, Mr. Holland claims...
    "We've been at this all day, and the only ingenue we seem to have is Todd Markham!"
    • He then adds that he doubts Todd's parents will allow him to play a girl in the revue.
  • Time-Passes Montage: The episodes of the film are broken up by these. For example, the final one leading to 1995 shows students with The '90s haircuts and even openly gay students holding hands on campus.
  • To the Tune of...: It is pointed out that "A Lover's Concerto" by The Toys uses the sweet strains of Christian Petzold's "Minuet in G" stretched to four-quarter time.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Roger Ebert remarked that the band at the beginning started playing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and you could barely recognize it. By the climax Mr. Holland had a band formed from his students that would rival any orchestra.
  • Wham Shot: Three:
    • First, there's the shot of a soundly sleeping Cole during the parade when everyone else is covering their ears.
    • Then, when Mr. Holland, Iris and Cole are leaving the school, they hear sound coming from the auditorium and Iris seemingly doesn't know what it is. When the trio go to investigate and Mr. Holland opens the doors and it's packed with a massive amount of people who all stand up and applaud Mr. Holland.
    • Finally, the governor entering and it being revealed she's Gertrude, the struggling clarinet player when she meets back up with Mr. Holland as she's going to make her speech and at the end of her speech, sits down with her old clarinet.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Rowena, Mr. Holland's highly talented student singer, decides to more or less run away to New York to try and make it on Broadway. Though they share a touching farewell at the bus stop, she is never heard from again. According to actress Jean Louisa Kelly, they did shoot a scene where she returns to the leaving party as a Broadway star but test audiences didn't like it so they cut it.[1]
  • When You Coming Home, Dad?: Thinking that deafness makes music useless to Cole, Glenn refuses to share its beauty with him, instead focusing on his hearing students. A teenaged Cole calls him out on it. (First off, for Glenn thinking Cole had no idea who John Lennon was, and since this is the first time Cole heard Lennon died, he might have been just as upset.)
  • You Were Trying Too Hard: Gertrude starts crying mid-practice and explains to Mr. Holland that she's worried she will never accomplish anything with how everyone in her family is an overachiever. Mr. Holland stops being stern, and convinces her to relax while playing.