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Music isn’t found in the notes, but in the heart

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Mr. Holland’s Opus

Richard Dreyfuss in a scene from "Mr. Holland's Opus."

Mr. Holland's Opus (1995)

Amazon Prime et al. (Netflix on DVD)

Grade: A-

“Mr. Holland’s Opus,” set in Portland in 1965, is often described as a movie that’s holding onto the tail of Mr. Chips’ gown, and following him up the stairs and into the classroom.

“It’s a poor man’s ‘Mr. Chips,’” said one unimpressed critic.

Let’s being by noting “Mr. Holland’s Opus” has its critics who point to its sentimentality or to its suggestive portrayal of a teacher-student relationship that for some, crosses the line.

I’ll respond to both concerns, while confessing I find “Mr. Holland’s Opus” a moving portrait of a music teacher’s impact on his students. The script makes a strong case for music education, and the score ends with an all too familiar final movement: the school is short of funds, so it cuts the arts.

“The day they cut the football budget will be the end of civilization as we know it,” says a bitter Holland.

Holland transformed students with his baton for 30 years.

Sentimental? Yes, it is. There are a host of quite cute scenes designed to make us laugh or cry on cue. Holland teaches a black student to find rhythm; and uses rock music to teach Bach.

“I will do anything if it means they learn to love music,” he says.

His years begin with failure. Like Chips, Holland is tested by his students. Bored students ignore him in class, and mutter during lectures. He regrets giving up composing, to earn income.

“I think this is going to be a rougher gig than I originally thought,” he tells his wife. “I hate teaching. Nobody could teach these kids.”

On the verge of quitting, Holland recalibrates his flight path. He asks students what music they love, and begins to place his lesson plans inside their playlist.

Dreyfuss is believable as an inspiring – sometimes frustrated - teacher, finding a way to reach lost kids.

So, let’s talk about the kiss.

I have read articles saying Holland should have been fired, and that he was a creepy predator.

Yes, Holland begins to fall for a beautiful senior with Judy Garland’s voice. Rowena has a crush on him, too. All this happens during a rocky period when his frustrations at school are threatening his marriage.

Holland inspires Rowena to pursue music in college. She decides she can’t wait, and makes plans to catch a bus to New York on graduation night to chase her dream on Broadway.

Rowena invites her music teacher to come along.

“I know you have a wife and a son,” she says, her voice trailing off.

And so, at midnight he comes to the bus stop. Rowena’s there, packed.

“You pack light,” she says, sensing he’s not coming. As the bus pulls up, she leans in to kiss him on the lips, but he slides over to her cheeks and kisses her lightly. And she’s gone.

In my view, this is temptation resisted. Yes, I, can see the hints of creepiness, but its purpose is to portray a teacher walking up to the line, putting his toes on it – and stopping.

But there have been some pretty strong, thoughtful feminist critiques of this film.

There is a welcome portrayal of Holland’s friendship with a fellow male teacher. The football coach speaks bluntly to Holland, challenging him while encouraging him. We all need a sounding board.

I also love how Holland grows to love his deaf son. That conflict leads to angry encounters with mom trying to separate them. The Vietnam War and John Lennon are also threads woven through the entire film. Nearly 50,000 US soldiers would die in Vietnam in the 1960s – Holland’s students among them.

“Imagine all the people living life in peace,” Lennon sings, in the soundtrack.

The ending is, yes, vintage Disney, pure schmaltz. It’s a goodbye assembly with all his former students as the orchestra playing his “opus.” But the close ups of the adult players remind us of the times when Mr. Holland taught them to love music and to believe in themselves.

Yes, I can see the weaknesses, but I still find “Mr. Holland’s Opus” to be a moving portrait of the difference a teacher can make in students’ lives.

And, of course, I’m a defender of music education and I applaud the pro-arts message.

“Mr. Holland’s Opus” reminded me of Beth Mazanec, a Helena music teacher who dedicated 26-years to teaching music to Helena students. Beth made a profound difference both in how the young musicians held their bows and in how they held their heads – high and proud, of course.

Beth, this opus is for you.


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