Author: Sydney Reade

So you didn’t get Bill Gates tickets. But, did you really want to spend your time watching Bill Gates lecture on the future of higher education anyway? Or did you just secretly want to shake his hand?

Well, I’m not Bill Gates, but I can direct you to some notable movies that touch upon the field of academia with a side dish of seriously good entertainment. Consider watching Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995). The film spans decades of the life of a musician who becomes a music teacher to give him the means to work on his compositions. But Mr. Holland winds up finding his own meaning in the profession.

In 1965, Glenn Holland (Richard Dreyfuss), a mildly successful musical composer and performer, takes a job at John F. Kennedy High School to allow him time to work on a great orchestral piece of music and be with his wife, Iris (Glenne Headly). Holland quickly realizes, however, that the arts, and music in particular, fall at the bottom of the totem poll of the high school hierarchy in everything from respect from the faculty, regard from the students, and money from the school board. Holland shares his students’ frustration with the academic bureaucracy that often makes institutions of learning that are meant to be fountainheads of creativity so stifling. To top if off, the job doesn’t give Glenn nearly as much time or money as he’d like. Just as Holland is beginning to use popular rock music to connect with his students as the individuals of varying talents he knows them to be, he is thrown yet another curveball—his son is born deaf, unable to hear or understand the passion that is the driving force of his father’s life.

The central plot, catalogued against a changing backdrop of American history, follows Holland’s thirty years as a teacher. The viewer passes through each one with the nonchalance of a student —the school year comes, it goes, life moves on. But what Glenn Holland hardly comes to expect is the profound changes his efforts will have on the school, his students, but most importantly, on himself.

On the subject of education, I could have reviewed any number of wonderfully illuminating films—Meryl Streep’s 1999 Music of the Heart, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis’ partnership in Won’t Back Down (2012), or even the 1967 classic To Sir With Love starring Sidney Poitier (I actually might want to review that one next week, so keep your eyes peeled). But Mr. Holland’s Opus stands out for its less common depiction of a typical school setting. It is not so heavy handed with the educational clichés about how hard good teachers work to make school feel worth it for their students, or about how overbearing the red tape in a school administration can be. These themes are present, but the movie exemplifies a hallmark of really well-done creative works in its portrayal—it shows, but doesn’t tell. Further, these plot points are all secondary to the family struggles the Hollands endure, from Iris banging pots and pans to get her son to hear, to Glenn not understanding the American Sign Language gesture for “asshole.” What we see in this film is how the teaching profession infiltrates even the lives of the teachers, making them better people, and students better people for it.

Physically, the film is no great feat compared to other Dreyfuss movies. There are no special effects the likes of which appeared in Jaws (#56). The acting is neat but real—you feel the desperation in Glenne Headly’s portrayal of a conflicted spouse and mother, you feel the wrath of Dreyfuss’ exasperation when he takes the school principal head on (he was nominated for Best Actor for his role). You feel elation when students find their way trembling through musical compositions, some taking to the task better than others, but always coming out the other side more worldly individuals. You feel community when Glenn’s best friend, the football coach, gets his players to act in Holland’s musical production to ensure a sold out crowd.

There’s very little humor in the dialogue, yet the film has an intensely humanizing touch to it that often surprises. It may drag on a little long, and bear convenient witness to some astounding historical events. The makeup is a tad overdone—I think Holland looks much older than sixty toward the end of the movie—but these are all small prices to pay for a brilliant plot and heartwarming central lesson. For all the beloved teachers, professors, and mentors out there, thank you for your tireless pursuit of excellence in the profession, and in your students.