April 24, 2017

In which I trash "Mr. Holland's Opus"

WARNING: if you're a fan of "Mr. Holland's Opus" and are prone to high blood pressure, this post may not be for you...

A few months ago I wrote about the recent film Whiplash  I'm not a film critic, and that post was not a review; it was more of a description of my personal reaction to the music-school traumas the movie depicted.
Typical student orchestra, though that's not Mr. Holland.
photo by Anthony B.

This post is also about a movie, though in this case one from 1995: the Richard Dreyfuss vehicle Mr. Holland's Opus. Again, my purpose is to convey my personal reaction to a movie that won wide acclaim back in the day. Roger Ebert gave it 3.5 stars out of 4 and called it "very moving".

My wife liked it. My circle of friends at that time liked it. Maybe you like it.


As I sat in the theater watching it upon its release, my hopes buoyed by strong reviews, I alternated between squirming impatiently and slumping in disappointment. I shall explain.

This film, by the way, was not Dreyfuss's first venture in the realm of movies with a classical music theme. In 1980, he and Amy Irving starred in a feature called The Competition about two pianists trying to make their mark in an international piano competition. I remember the artificiality of the crisis facing Dreyfuss's character: having failed to take the top prize in two previous contests, this one was his "last chance"; if he didn't come in first, he would be condemned to teaching beginning piano to inner-city children. This, of course, ignores the reality that, quite often, the 2nd and 3rd place winners in major competitions go on to careers far outstripping the ones who take top honors. Also: 1) just why would he not be eligible to apply for college jobs, or build a prestigious private studio? and 2) what's wrong with teaching inner-city kids, anyway?

But enough of that one: my sharpest rebukes I save for good ol' Mr. Holland. If you never saw it, the brief synopsis is this: Mr. Holland is a brilliant young composer who is sure to become the next Leonard Bernstein. Faced with a family to support and bills to pay, he takes a job as a high school music teacher, certain that it's only temporary until he achieves Lennie-status. The years roll by, he becomes dedicated to the job in spite of himself, all the while spending his spare time working on the big orchestral masterpiece he dreams of completing. As he nears retirement, his dreams unrealized, many of his grateful former students return to present him with a gift of appreciation: they perform the aforementioned orchestral masterpiece. Tears of joy flood Mr. Holland's wrinkled cheeks. The end. Sounds heartfelt and inspiring, right?

Big giant MEH over here.

Here are my problems with this stupid, stupid movie.

Movies and TV shows always exaggerate EVERYTHING. In medical dramas, diseases that take months to develop in real life reach the critical stage in days or even hours. In cop shows,bad guys fire an armory's worth of ammo at the hero without ever hitting him, yet he kills his enemy with a single shot from across a parking lot. Makes a better story, I get that.

The equivalent in Mr. Holland is the completely ridiculous transformation he brings about in the student orchestra. His first rehearsal on Day 1 of his new job is mind-bendingly awful. It's cacophony. Are they students or chimpanzees? They certainly sound as if none of them have ever attempted to play their instruments before. Cut to a scene in the not-distant future. The level of playing now approaches the Berlin Philharmonic. It's not just improved; it's completely professional, at least as I remember the scene. Give me a break.

It would have been perfectly possible - and reasonable! - to document an improvement in the students' playing without having them play at an insanely polished level of artistry. We would still have gotten the point that he's a really good teacher.

Midway through his career as an educator, Mr. Holland develops a close relationship with a talented student; a student who (we are to understand) is "going places". Her name is Rowena. Rowena knocks 'em dead at a student concert singing Gershwin, as I recall. Of course, the student band backing her up sounds like it could open at the Bellagio in Vegas because that Mr. Holland really knows his stuff! What follows is an episode meant to tug at our heartstrings. Rowena and her teacher have a powerful mutual attraction, despite Mr. Holland having a wife and special-needs child at home. Unspoken yet deep, deep feelings are conveyed through meaningful glances and sighs and so on. Eventually, Rowena bids her hometown goodbye, heading off to the big city to take Broadway by storm. A bittersweet moment of farewell passes between the young star-to-be and the sensitive instructor who molded her gifts. Farewell!

STOP IT! JUST STOP IT! MR. HOLLAND SHOULD BE FIRED. SHE WAS A STUDENT AND HE WAS 10-15 YEARS OLDER THAN HER. It wasn't romantic - it was CREEPY. It was PEDOPHILIA. The trouble with the movie was that this longing was glorified in a patently false and unrealistic way. Shame on Mr. Holland, and shame on Mr. Holland's Opus.

The film required Mr. Holland to have a best friend-slash-confidante on the faculty, someone to share his ups and downs with. That fell to the varsity football coach, played by Jay Thomas. I recall also seeing Mr. Thomas, a perfectly fine character actor, on an episode of Law and Order SVU, in which he played a weasel of a shyster attorney involved in shady business deals. In THAT role he was perfectly cast. He was about as convincing as a football coach as, say, Woody Allen would have been.

And finally, most importantly,

The film makes a big deal out of the masterpiece-in-progress to which our hero remains devoted. When other men use evenings to watch TV and weekends to play golf, Mr. Holland is at his desk, poring over sheaves of manuscript paper, scribbling notes with what amounts to a good case of OC disorder. So, in other words, the build-up to the climactic performance in the movie's finale is immense. My god, the effort he put into this thing approaches what Wagner went through in creating the damn Ring cycle. This better be one heck of a piece! I want majesty! I want eloquence! I want substance!

Didn't get it.

This "opus" turned out to be about 5 minutes (or less) of unimaginably puerile elevator music. It sounded more like something one of his high school students might have written than "the world's most tragically undiscovered genius".

Now, it would be one thing if the movie had been acknowledged the awfulness of the music; if its low quality had forced Mr. Holland into an epiphany of self-awareness, causing him to realize that his true talent was that of a teacher; that all these years he'd been under delusions about his talent as an artist.

But no - this performance was his moment of REDEMPTIVE TRIUMPH! The world finally got to hear his magnificent music in all its.... uh... magnificence!

Mr. Holland, you aren't who you think you are. Sorry, brother, but each of us must face the realities of our limitations at some point.

I've never met anyone who was not inclined to give this movie a pass because it celebrated music education and made a hero of a devoted teacher and drew attention to the arts and..... You get the idea.

But I give it no pass. The actual music Mr. Holland composed seemed to me to carry the message that "this kind of music is for the birds. Take a crack at a rock band - at least you might make some coin instead of ending up an old man with nothing to show for it except the world's most lame symphony."

That concludes this rant! And really, if you loved kindly Mr. Holland, I regret any annoyance I may have caused.

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