Mr Holland's Opus Review

When watching Mr Holland's Opus, it's quite a surprise to discover that's it not at all bad. I'm not suggesting that it's particularly good, but there are virtues in this sort of cliched and manipulative film that it's hard to find in more sophisticated cinema, and when sentimental trash is done with plenty of style then it's tempting just to lie back and wallow in the pleasures of the familiar.

Stephen Herek's film is another in a long line of 'sainted teacher' movies, in which a young teacher goes into the profession without much ability or confidence, gradually wins round even the toughest kids and, in the process, gets into trouble with the unbending management. In other words, a variation on losers becoming winners in the sort of narrative to which cinema turns time and time again. The influences on Mr Holland's Opus are pretty obvious; antecedents include the shamelessly enjoyable Goodbye Mr Chips, the idiotic To Sir With Love and the banal Up The Down Staircase. There's also, according to the director, a touch of It's A Wonderful Life, but this is more implicit in the climax than explicitly obvious. In these films, certain scenes are mandatory; the initially sullen children who either misbehave or sit there like valium casualties; the triumphant lesson where the teacher breaks with convention in order to interest his charges; the confrontation with tight-arsed authority that insists on discipline rather than stimulation; and, perhaps worst of all, the 'we love you' moment when the students rally round their beloved teacher and show him how much he or she is valued.

Indeed, Mr Holland's Opus contains mild variations on all the above scenes. The story centres around Glenn Holland (Dreyfuss), a frustrated composer who decides to turn to teaching in order to make enough money to allow him to eventually write music full time. He immediately receives a warning of the pressures involved - "I don't remember the last time I had that was free" says Bill, the friendly football coach, in response to Holland's comments about what he will do with his free time - and gets off on the wrong foot with his Principal, nicely played by an underused Olympia Dukakis. Of course, he gradually becomes a wonderful teacher, with the assistance of some rock'n'roll, and ends up as an asset to the school and the community. This is all highly predictable, but no less enjoyable for that. I do want to raise a small point about the time scheme of the film. It seems to run from 1964 to 1995 and Holland ages believably between 30 and 60. But the opening radio broadcast refers to 4 years having passed since the report of the Warren Commission, which would mark the beginning as taking place in 1968. The dialogue is often sharp and funny, particularly the exchanges between Dreyfuss and Jay Thomas as the football coach, and the energy of Richard Dreyfuss's performance is phenomenal. He is such a likeable actor, when he's not encouraged to go over the top, that his triumph as a teacher seems entirely convincing. He relishes the ample opportunities for grandstanding, much as Robin Williams did in Dead Poets Society, but he doesn't become too lachrymose over how wonderful it is to fill young minds with knowledge. One scene in particular, when the retiring Principal gives him a compass and tells him "Of all the teachers, you're my favourite," works only because Dreyfuss underplays it, acknowledging the sentimental side of the moment without emphasising it. He only puts a foot wrong in one scene, when he's required to sing John Lennon's rather horrible "Beautiful Boy" to his deaf son at a concert. It's such a badly written, saccharine scene that I doubt any actor could get away with it, but Dreyfuss, for the only time in the film, becomes the supposedly lovable pixie that made him intolerable in films like Stakeout. It's an almost unwatchable scene and it seems entirely fake.

What isn't fake, however, and what saves the film from being merely forgettable whimsy, is the subplot about Holland's relationship with his wife and son. This is shown in a surprisingly harsh light for much of the movie and Glenn Holland does not come out of it well. The way in which his devotion to his pupils makes him neglect his wife is made crystal clear, as is the way he blanks out their son because he can't come to terms with his deafness. This is allowed to become the sentimental mush of the aforementioned "Beautiful Boy" scene, but for the first two thirds of the film, Dreyfuss and the excellent Glenne Headley, playing his wife, create a believable marriage which is getting to crisis point through a total lack of understanding or communication. This is believably messy and somewhat uncomfortable and it's to the credit of the writer and director that its allowed to come through so strongly. Equally good is the way that a predictable relationship between Holland and one of his students - a rather anonymous ingenue - is resolved without the standard husband-wife argument that is expected. In fact, the domestic life of Holland is rather more interesting, and certainly more rounded, than the school life and it would have been nice if there had been more of it.

The film, shot in Panavision for reasons that escape me given that the action largely takes place in the centre of the screen, is efficiently directed by Stephen Herek, a director who has never made anything to top his wonderful Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure. His reliance on montages of American history moving on tends to hide the fact that little effort is made to suggest how attitudes of teenagers changed over 30 years. However, the period detail in the settings is reasonably sharp and it looks very nice too, although the soft Norman Rockwell colours do get wearisome after a while. The main problem with the production is Michael Kamen's music score which is dripping with fake sentiment. Worse still, when we finally get to hear Glenn Holland's "American Symphony", which he has been writing throughout the film, it's dire in the extreme, a sort of hellish fusion of Aaron Copland and Jim Steinman. Honour is somewhat restored by the choice of songs on the score. Admittedly, one could live without hearing "Keep On Running" by the Spencer Davis Group again, but the decision to use "The Pretender" by Jackson Browne was a masterstroke. The only song which sticks out, though, is Lennon's "Imagine" which has become a sort of musical coat hook on which virtually any sentiment can be hung. I'm not sure, either, whether the suggested similarity between the tragedy of Vietnam and the tragedy of having a son who is born death is simply bad taste or hysterical overstatement.

Mr Holland’s Opus is the sort of film which invites you to wallow in a warm, familiar environment while nothing too stressful is presented to take you out of its comforting embrace. If you hadn’t already guessed, the ‘Opus’ of the title refers to all those children who have had the good fortune to be his pupils - the It’s A Wonderful Life influence comes through his musing that he hasn’t done anything worthwhile in his life, which is disabused when all the kids come to give him a standing ovation. If people standing and applauding teachers gives you nightmares of the horrors of Dead Poets Society then you might want to look elsewhere for your cinematic diversion. One might also comment that the marvelous William H.Macy is completely wasted in the role of the disciplinarian Vice-Principal. Otherwise, this is an entertaining, reasonably intelligent and very well acted film which isn’t nearly as annoying as it threatens to be.

The Disc

Another in the long line of back catalogue releases from MGM, Mr Holland's Opus is a typical example of the breed. A reasonable transfer with a trailer and that's your lot. Given the relatively low prices for which these discs are now selling - and I think this title is in the label's 3 for £20 offer - it's not a bad purchase if the film is your particular cup of tea.

The film is presented in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and is anamorphically enhanced. It's actually a very good transfer. The image is clean and sharp with little evidence of print damage or grain. There are occasional artifacts visible in the darker scenes but nothing serious of this nature is apparent. The colours are well represented, especially in the striking "marching band" segment of the film, and the level of contrast is fine.

The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 2.0, reflecting the original Dolby Stereo presentation. It does a good job with the score and the songs and the dialogue is clear throughout.

The only extra is the original US theatrical trailer which is far too long and gives away far too much of the film. There are 16 chapter stops.

Overall, this is a film which is good value for anyone who enjoys a well made wallow in shameless melodrama. Don't expect too much and you probably won't be disappointed. The DVD is entirely acceptable without being impressive but it's a worthwhile purchase if you want a copy of the film.

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