Why Every Musician Should Watch “Mr. Holland’s Opus”

The movie’s musical awareness manifests when class is in session, describing how one person’s music can inspire you to make your own.


By Richie Angel

“Playing music is supposed to be fun. It’s about heart, it’s about feelings and moving people and something beautiful and being alive, and it’s not about notes on a page.”


Trapped in a supposedly temporary “fallback” job, beleaguered by constant setbacks, and straining to mask the unspoken expressions of a man who feels hopelessly stuck.

It’s not George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, but it’s close.

Richard Dreyfuss earned an Oscar nomination for his role as Glenn Holland, infusing the character with all the everyman earnestness that Dreyfuss achieves so naturally.

Mr. Holland’s Opus follows a high school music teacher who would rather be composing his symphony than in class. Nevertheless, Mr. Holland spends thirty years imparting his passion for music to his students, simultaneously struggling to connect with his wife and deaf son, wondering when it will be his turn to do something important.

Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995) Directed by Stephen Herek. Pictured: Glenne Headly and Richard Dreyfuss.

Dreyfuss aside, the movie’s greatest strengths and weaknesses stem from the script—but with a Golden Globe-nominated screenplay, there are predictably far more strengths. The dialogue is smart and realistic, down to the jovial quips between colleagues and mumbled frustration. Typical to a story about a teacher, Mr. Holland must learn a few of his own lessons. Starting with an easily overlooked line, the movie plants the seeds of a central conflict and patiently waits to manifest it, laying the foundation through a series of characters and interactions until it earns its opportunity to personify the temptation to pursue a lifelong dream at the expense of everything else. The film has a lot to say, but some beats are unnecessary in an already overlong movie. None of the Vietnam or other historical montages, for instance, packs a punch as poignantly as one teacher simply telling Mr. Holland at a funeral for a fallen soldier, “We know way too many of these kids.” Still, these sequences emphasize Mr. Holland’s stagnancy amid movements of global significance.


Critically, the movie captures a fundamental love for music. The film begins with Mr. Holland on the piano, lost in his writing. Non-diegetic strings fade in to accompany him, and soon the piano is entirely replaced by a full orchestral swell. It is a perfect depiction of songwriting and the motivation of a composer to transpose the music from their head onto the page so audiences can fully hear what they do. Most obviously, the movie’s musical awareness manifests when class is in session, describing how one person’s music can inspire you to make your own; how past genres influence modern trends and modern songs honor the past; and that it’s okay to like music with subpar vocals, no harmony, and the same repeated three chords. Music isn’t pretentious—it’s meant to be fun.

Using music as a vehicle, the film offers that “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Fittingly, when the symphony is finally unveiled, it’s clear that the opus was much more than notes on a page. And that’s why every musician should watch Mr. Holland’s Opus.


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