Mr. Holland's Opus is presented as a video biography of the 30-year career of the eponymous lead character, Glenn Holland, as a music teacher at the fictional John F. Kennedy High School in Portland, Oregon.
In 1965, Glenn Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) is a talented musician and composer who has been relatively successful in the exhausting life of a professional musical performer. However, in an attempt to enjoy more free time with his young wife, Iris (Glenne Headly), and to enable him to compose a piece of orchestral music, the 30-year-old Holland accepts a teaching position.
Unfortunately for Glenn, he is soon forced to realize that his position as a music teacher makes him a marginalized figure in the faculty's hierarchy. He comes face to face with how seriously he is outranked by the high school's football coach, Bill (Jay Thomas), who ultimately becomes his best friend. Administrators, such as assistant principal Gene Wolters (William H. Macy), dislike him, while others, including principal Helen Jacobs (Olympia Dukakis), remind him that he should not teach just because of financial reasons. It is Mrs. Jacobs' scolding that helps Glenn turn a corner. He starts to use rock and roll as a way to help children understand classical music. Reluctantly, he begins to see his students as individuals and finds ways to help them excel.
When Iris becomes pregnant, Glenn uses the money saved up for his orchestrating to buy a house. Their son Cole is born sometime during the summer after Glenn's first year teaching. Glenn is then assigned to be in charge of the school marching band. Bill helps him in exchange for allowing football player Louis Russ (Terrence Howard) to play the drums for academic credit.
The film marks the passing decades with newsreels about Vietnam—corresponding to the tragic combat death of Louis,and the death of John Lennon in 1980. The passage of time and the mysteries of personal growth are a constant underlying theme in this film.
Glenn's lack of quality time with Iris becomes problematic when their son, Cole, is diagnosed as deaf. Glenn reacts with hostility to the news that he can never teach the joys of music to his own child. Iris willingly learns American Sign Language to communicate with her son, but Glenn resists. This causes further estrangement within the family.
Through three decades, Glenn is closer to students at John F. Kennedy High School than he is to his own son. At one point in the film, he is briefly tempted by the shining talent of a young female student, who invites him to leave his stressful, unsatisfying life and run off to New York.
He addresses a series of challenges created by people who are either skeptical of—or hostile towards—the idea of musical excellence within the walls of a typical middle-class American high school. He inspires many students, but never has private time for himself or his family, forever delaying the composition of his own orchestral composition. Ultimately, he reaches an age when it is too late to realistically find financial backing or ever have it performed. In 1995, the adversaries of the Kennedy High music program win a decisive institutional victory. Glenn's longtime adversary Gene Wolters, promoted to school principal when Jacobs retired, works with the school board to eliminate music (along with the rest of the fine arts program) in the name of necessary budget cuts, thereby leading to Glenn's ignominious dismissal at the age of 60. Glenn is a realist who realizes that his working life is over. He believes that his former students have mostly forgotten him.
On his final day as a teacher, the despairing Glenn is led to the school auditorium, where his professional life is surprisingly redeemed. Hearing that their beloved teacher is leaving, hundreds of his pupils have secretly returned to the school to celebrate his life.
Glenn's orchestral piece, never before heard in public, has been put before the musicians by his wife and son. One of his most musically challenged students, Gertrude Lang (Alicia Witt as a child and Joanna Gleason as an adult), who has become governor of the state, sits-in with her clarinet. Gertrude and the other alumni ask the retiring teacher to serve as their conductor for the premiere performance of Mr. Holland's Opus ("The American Symphony"). A proud Iris and Cole look on, appreciating the affection and respect that Glenn receives.
- Richard Dreyfuss as Glenn Holland
- Glenne Headly as Iris Holland
- Jay Thomas as Bill Meister
- Olympia Dukakis as Principal Helen Jacobs
- William H. Macy as Vice Principal (later Principal) Gene Wolters
- Alicia Witt as Gertrude Lang
- Terrence Howard as Louis Russ
- Damon Whitaker as Bobby Tidd
- Jean Louisa Kelly as Rowena Morgan
- Alexandra Boyd as Sarah Olmstead
- Nicholas John Renner as Coltrane "Cole" Holland (age 6)
- Joseph Anderson as Coltrane "Cole" Holland (age 15)
- Anthony Natale as Coltrane "Cole" Holland (age 28)
- Joanna Gleason as Governor Gertrude Lang
- Beth Maitland as Deaf School Principal
- Balthazar Getty as Stadler
The movie was written by Patrick Sheane Duncan (for which he received a Golden Globe nomination) and directed by Stephen Herek. Dreyfuss was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor and a Golden Globe.
The movie was filmed in and around Portland, Oregon with many exterior and interior scenes taking place at Ulysses S. Grant High School.
Archive footage seen in the film includes:
- Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech
- Robert and John F. Kennedy
- Vietnam Wa
- The Rocky Horror Picture Show
- Saturday Night Fever
- Stop Making Sense
- Death of John Lennon
The film features an orchestral score by Michael Kamen and many pieces of classical music. Kamen also wrote An American Symphony, the work Mr. Holland is shown working on throughout the movie.
Two soundtrack albums were released for this film in January 1996. One is the original motion picture score, and includes all of the original music written for the film by Michael Kamen. The second album is a collection of popular music featured in the film:
- "Visions of a Sunset" - Shawn Stockman (of Boyz II Men)
- "One, Two, Three" - Len Barry
- "A Lover's Concerto" - The Toys
- "Keep On Running" - Spencer Davis Group
- "Uptight (Everything's Alright)" - Stevie Wonder
- "Imagine" - John Lennon
- "The Pretender" - Jackson Browne
- "Someone to Watch Over Me" - Julia Fordham
- "I Got a Woman" - Ray Charles
- "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)" - John Lennon
- "Cole's Song" - Julian Lennon & Tim Renwick
- "An American Symphony (Mr. Holland's Opus)" - London Metropolitan Orchestra & Michael Kamen
In the United States, gross domestic takings totaled US$ 82,569,971. International takings are estimated at US$ 23,700,000, for a gross worldwide takings of US$ 106,269,971. Rental totals reached US$ 36,550,000 in the US. Although the film is included amongst 1995 box office releases (it ranks as the 14th most successful film of that year), it was only released in a few theatres in New York and Los Angeles on December 29, 1995, because the studio felt, accurately, that Richard Dreyfuss' performance had a good chance of getting an Oscar nomination if it beat that year's in-theatre deadline.
Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a 74% Fresh rating.
The Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation
Inspired by the motion picture, its composer, Michael Kamen, founded The Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation (MHOF) in 1996 as his commitment to the future of music education.
- Mr. Holland's Opus at the TCM Movie Database
- Mr. Holland's Opus at AllRovi
- Mr. Holland's Opus at Box Office Mojo
- The Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation
- Mr. Holland's Opus at Rotten Tomatoes
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