Director: Stephen Herek
Cast: Richard Dreyfus, Glenne Headly, William H. Macy, Olympia Dukakis, Jay Thomas, Terrance Howard, Alicia Witt
Released: December 29, 1995
Best Actor - Richard Dryfus (lost to Nicholas Cage for Leaving Las Vegas)
This film, about a music teacher, expands a time span of 30 years. Richard Dreyfus plays Glenn Holland, an aspiring composer, who takes a job as a high school music teacher to make ends meet while he writes his composition in his spare time. He teaches at John F. Kennedy high school in Portland, Oregon. Okay, follow along with me here for a second: the first class he teaches in the class of '63, which means that he started in the autumn of 1962...JFK didn't die until November 1963 so they kind of jumped the gun on that! And I suppose they could have named the school after him while he was in office, but does that ever happen? I'm certainly not aware of any Barack Obama High School that may be lurking out there! And even if they did, the school would have to have been brand new since Kennedy began his Presidency in 1960. All I'm saying is that they should have chosen another president to name their fictional school after. The timeline just didn't match.
He is not thrilled about being a teacher and is exasperated with his students because they fail the tests and are horrible at playing their instruments. His teaching method is just to have the students read the text book and give them a quiz at the end of each lesson, but soon realizes that's not working for them. He starts playing records for them and tells them that rock and roll music and classical music aren't so different from each other and plays cords from famous songs of both genres on the piano. His wife, Iris (Glenne Headly) tells him to hang in there for four years and then they'll access their situation to see if he can work on his compositions full time so he can become rich and famous, except it doesn't exactly happen like that.
Iris becomes pregnant and gives birth to their son, Cole (his full name is Coltrane as he's named after John Coltrane and he's lucky they could shorten it to Cole because Coltrane is a horrible first name!) who is deaf. It's not until he's well into his first year that they don't notice there's something off about him when they're at a parade where a loud siren goes off and everyone is covering their ears and babies are crying, but young Cole remains oblivious in his stroller, asleep. Unless Cole became deaf right that second, I'm a little confused. Didn't they notice there was something wrong with his hearing within the first week of his life? Even though babies can't communicate, they usually look at you if you're talking to them. My cat looks at me when I make a noise! They take Cole to a specialist who tells them not to use hand gestures with him. Obviously this was a time when sign language was uncouth and that specialist was an idiot because Iris finds it very difficult and frustrating to try to communicate with Cole while her husband spends most of his time busy with his work and students.
We see a few of the connections he makes with his students. The first ever was with a student from the first class he taught, the class of '63. Gertrude (speaking of horrible names...) is a redhead (played by Alicia Witt) who needs help with the clarinet. I think he gives her good advice and bad advice. The good advice is when he tells her to just have fun when she's playing the clarinet after he plays her a record of "Louie Louie" and asks her what's the first thing that comes to her mind and she says, "They're having fun." The bad advice (and bad screen writing) was when he asked her what her favorite thing about herself was and she replied her hair because her dad told her it reminded him of the sunset and he said, "Play the sunset." What does that even mean? That doesn't make any sense. But maybe it wasn't bad advice because as soon as he said that, she nailed her solo. It was still cheesy, though.
Another one of the students he mentors is a football player who has trouble keeping the beat played by a very young Terrance Howard...who would later star in August Rush, another movie about love and appreciation for music. When the '80s roll around, his son is now a teenager (and attends a school for the hearing impaired) and there are hints that he and his wife are having marital problems. Rowena is a girl from the class of '80 who is part of the spring musical production. She has aspirations of going to New York after she graduates (like, literally right after) to make it big there and she and Mr. Holland develop a near bordering creepy relationship. She invites Holland to run away with her and while he does meet her at the bus stop and give her an incredibly awkward kiss, he declines the invitation. He is working on a new composition that he has named "Rowena" and when his wife sees it and asks who Rowena is he makes up something about her being a mythical goddess and when Iris is at the school's production she sees the name of the main singer is Rowena and how many people are named Rowena? Plus Rowena is looking right at Holland when she's singing "Someone to Watch Over Me" so it doesn't take much for Iris to put two and two together, but she never mentions it to her husband. The movie is 2 hours and 25 minutes and if they had dropped this entirely pointless plot line, it would have been two hours.
The death of John Lennon brings Holland and his son closer together. I was listening to a podcast review of this movie...one guy had seen it before and the other hadn't. The guy who had never seen it made me laugh when he commented, "Did people really treat John Lennon's death like it was 9/11?" Obviously he was exaggerating a tad, but I do see where he was coming from. It was all over the news, which was understandable...I remember the next morning after Michael Jackson died, the radio was playing a tribute to him, but the characters in the movie acted like it was one of their own family members who had died. Cole wants to show his dad something when he comes home from work, but Holland tells him he's not in the mood because somebody died and that Cole wouldn't understand and then Cole tells him he knows who John Lennon and the Beatles are and Holland realizes that despite his son being deaf, he can still understand and know about music. At a music function Holland puts on for his son's school, he sings a John Lennon and Yoko Ono song for Cole called Beautiful Boy. I had never heard of it until I listened to it on the soundtrack. Holland apologizes in advance for his singing ability and let's just say this song sounds better when John Lennon is singing it. It's a sweet sentiment, but I can't think of too many teenaged boys who would be thrilled to have their dad singing such a sappy song to them! At least Cole couldn't hear his dad's awful singing!
The make-up department did a great job with aging Richard Dreyfus. He was 48 when he made the film. At the end of the film, Mr. Holland was 60, so they aged him down and up for the role. They didn't do such a great job with aging William H. Macy (or W.H. Macy as the opening credits has his name) who plays the assistant principal to Olympia Dukakis's principal, then the principal when she retired - he has the same buzz cut and glasses throughout the entire movie. It's as though the entire movie's make up budget went into aging only Dreyfus! When the movie wants to skip a few years, it will show clips of famous events that happened in those years. The only jarring part is when it skips from 1980 to 1995 without any clips. This is the biggest gap that the movie passes through and apparently nothing happened in the entire decade of the '80s! Nothing at all! I also have to laugh at how hard they're trying to make the 1995 class look so cool. Oh, look, there's two boys holding hands - we have gay students at our school now! It just felt like they were trying to hard to try to be cool with the times. At least in '95 it makes sense to have a school called John F. Kennedy High School!
Mr. Holland is forced to retire because the school is taking away the budget for the music and drama classes. The school has put on a warm reception for him where many of his students from pass classes - including Gertrude, who is now the mayor, have come to perform one of his musical oeuvres.
While a bit saccharine at times, it's an uplifting story. I would recommend watching it, but feel free to fast forward through all the scenes with Rowena!