Of all the lives he changed, the one that changed the most was his own.
A marvelously moving film about life's detours and the power of a passionate teacher is brought to DVD with a horribly re-hashed transfer that makes me wonder how Buena Vista could have let this go out the door.
As some of you may know, if you have been paying attention to our little ole website here, that Mr. Holland's Opus is one of our esteemed Chief Judge's favorite movies. So why am I writing this review? Unfortunately, it is because he is too peeved at Buena Vista for releasing such a magnificent movie on a bare bones disc but most importantly with such a poor transfer. Having seen this movie for the first time on DVD, I have to concur with my learned friend's opinion: Mr. Holland's Opus deserves better!
This is the story of Glenn Holland (Richard Dreyfuss), a musician and composer, who in the mid-1960s decides that he has to give up his itinerant lifestyle and get some money in his bank account. Only for a while, of course, so that he can get back to his true love and compose an opus that will bring him fame and fortune. His attempts at teaching do not meet with much success, to the point where Glenn is bemoaning his fate to his football coach friend, Bill Meister (Jay Thomas) and his wife, Iris (Glenne Headley). Glenn gets sympathetic advice from his friend and a shocking announcement from Iris that she's pregnant. Glenn now realizes he has a family to support, and determines to make the best of his job.
With a fresh attitude, Glenn begins to make some headway with his students and even helps frustrated clarinet player Gertrude Lang (Alicia Witt, last seen in Dune as the precocious Alia) find her inner talents. With patience and persistence, he survives teaching summer driver's ed, and joyfully welcomes the birth of his son, Cole (played by three different actors as he ages, from Nicholas Renner, to Joseph Anderson, to Anthony Natale). When life seems perfect, Principal Jacobs (Olympia Dukakis) and Vice Principal Wolters (William H. Macy) throw Glenn a curve-ball, drafting him to create a marching band from the ground up.
Hopeless as a drill instructor, Glenn convinces his pal Bill to put his former Army experience to use as a marching coach, in return for helping Louis Russ, an academically struggling athlete, learn an instrument and get the credits to keep his wrestling career alive. It's a tough struggle, but Glenn succeeds, only to be blindsided by the news that his infant son is profoundly deaf. The shock for a music teacher is immense, and Glenn manages it with difficulty. By now, we are in the middle of the Vietnam War, signified by the sudden death and funeral of Louis Russ.
Time flows ahead, until we reach the mid-'70s, where Principal Jacobs has retired, replaced by the less friendly Wolters. The school play of that year is to be a Gershwin revue, with Glenn helping with the music, and during the casting process in walks ingenue Rowena Morgan (Jean Louisa Kelly). Glenn is clearly smitten with the talented student, and before long, the feeling is mutual. Before matters get out of control, Glenn reminds himself of his loving wife and family, and gently dissuades Rowena, yet still encouraging her to pursue her passion for the theater.
A flash forward, and Glenn is saddened by the death of John Lennon. This leads to conflict with his son Cole, forcing Glenn to confront the different world of the deaf. He bridges the gap with a very personal musical presentation at Cole's school, and makes a deep emotional connection with his son.
Skip ahead to 1995, and from out of the blue a thunderbolt comes, delivered by Principal Wolters. Budget problems, the chronic problem of modern public schools, have hit the high school. In typical fashion, the axe falls on the arts, eliminating the music, art, and drama programs, but leaving sports untouched. Glenn makes a bitter, futile speech to the school board, then faces his involuntary retirement. Leaving his music room for the last time, he is lured into a farewell celebration in the school auditorium. Having made such a difference to so many people, Mr. Holland is given a final gift of love by his legion of friends and students, past and present. (If you're dry eyed at this point, you're not human!)
This is far superior to your average "teacher who changes the lives of the students" movie, as it takes the time to build the life of the teacher, using a span of about thirty years and several sets of students to graphically illustrate the important moments of his life and career, without being as obvious or formulaic as some (such as a Dangerous Minds). There is a very natural feel to the story, and it helps credibility when most of the musical instruments seem to be handled by actors and actresses who can actually play them. The only part that seems artificial is the use of a young, quite attractive student as temptation for the devoted, near saintly Glenn.
The keystone of Mr. Holland's Opus is obviously Richard Dreyfuss, who was up to the challenge and clearly had a ball doing this role. He nicely modulates his performance as time goes by, slowly changing both his emotional and physical state. Simply put, he deserved the Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Glenne Headly (last seen as Mulder's barkeep in X-Files: Fight the Future) is a worthy companion to Richard Dreyfuss, lacking only the same screen time to showcase her talents. Olympia Dukakis is pleasing as the iron-lady principal who makes Glenn grow into a better teacher, and William H. Macy is, well, William H. Macy, doing the slightly square, slightly befuddled everyman he does so well. I also note a small, but nice turn as the adult Gertrude Lang by Joanna Gleason, who I last saw in the underrated gem F/X 2).
The audio is one of the more unremarkable 5.1 mixes that I have heard so far. With the limited activity in the front soundfield, I severely doubt that I'm missing much in the rear surrounds. The subwoofer has extremely limited duty, and for most of the movie sat on standby with no signal to activate it. The dialogue was clearly understood, and the music was adequate but with the exception of the finale did not seem to have a particularly rich tonal quality.
Extras are limited to a five-minute featurette (basically an extended trailer with some brief interviews) and those utterly stupid film recommendations. Aside from static, film-themed menus and the preferred Amaray keep case, that's it.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Even worse than the usual Buena Vista lack of features is the video transfer, which I swear they must have dug out of the deepest, darkest corner of their vault. Just a few seconds will make it blindingly obvious that they must have recycled an old laserdisc transfer, because I have never seen a disc so full of artifacts from "digital enhancement." You name it, it's here. Shimmering, moiré patterns, and the like are on display almost constantly, making this a rather annoying viewing experience. Furthermore, the colors seem muted in their saturation, as if this was a movie at least ten years older, there was a fair amount of dirt and blemishes present in the transfer, and sharpness is merely fair. All in all, a shockingly poor transfer for a movie not even five years old.
This disc ought to be Exhibit A as to why ALL titles should get a new anamorphic transfer when they are first released to DVD. Even with the theoretical problem of anamorphic down-conversion artifacts (which in my experience are minimal or non-existent), there is no possible way that they could be as severe or pervasive as the faults of this transfer. For shame, Buena Vista!
If the movie doesn't move you to tears, then the disc certainly will. At the usual Buena Vista price ($30), I can't recommend a purchase for anyone. If you haven't seen Mr. Holland's Opus, then by all means rent it, but don't show this off to your friends and family as a DVD masterpiece.
The film is honorably acquitted, but Buena Vista is sentenced to explain to us consumers how they can justify foisting such a lousy recycled transfer on the DVD public. Now, where did I put that poison pen…
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Hollywood Pictures
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