Making Joyful Noises

Mr. Holland's Opus

by Patrick Taggart

It was just a pulse -- a bassoon -- sounding like a rusty squeezebox! And then, suddenly, high above it, an oboe -- a single note hanging there unwavering, until a clarinet took it over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight... this was music I had never heard! Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing... It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God.

-- Antonio Salieri, upon hearing Mozart for the first time, in Amadeus

This is just about as

close as anyone gets, in a movie or in real life, to expressing that most wonderful of mysteries, the power of music.

Playwright Peter Shaffer's description of the magical, melting beauty of Mozart's "Serenade for Winds," as expressed by his madly envious protagonist, the surpassingly mediocre Salieri, expresses in words what can actually be seen in Mozart's score: the bassoon down there, the oboe up here, the clarinet line flowing above the supporting harmony.

But the feelings -- that aching longing he describes -- how do you express that? Can mere words truly express what that combination of oboe and squeezebox does to our hearts?

In Children of a Lesser God, William Hurt takes a stab at it without words. He has put an instrumental piece by Bach on the phonograph. His girlfriend, the deaf student played by Marlee Matlin, asks him to express physically how the music stirs him. His eyes close, his face turns up, his arms come up and out. It's an expression of adoration and rapture. The moment is sincere and moving, yet still insufficient.

There have been lots of movies about music and musicians, but precious few are able to do much more than suggest how music moves us.

Mr. Holland's Opus, a new film from the director of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, is not a great movie, but it fairly brims with moments that get to the heart of musical power.

The film's greatest asset is Richard Dreyfuss, who delivers a hard-working and persuasive performance as the title character. It is Mr. Holland's fate to instruct an army of mostly unmotivated and ungifted high school students in the basics of music. He struggles with the band and resorts to guerrilla tactics to gain the attention of his music appreciation class. He works one-on-one with a seemingly hopeless clarinet player and, turning stereotype on its ear, coaches a black kid with absolutely no sense of rhythm on how to play the drums.

The clarinet player -- and she really is awful -- is just about to give it up when Mr. Holland takes her aside for her first real music lesson. Up until now, her playing has been technically deficient and devoid of expression. Holland asks her what she thinks is the best thing about her. Her hair, she says, indicating a thick red mane. She tells him her father says it reminds him of the sunset.

"Play the sunset," says Mr. Holland.

As expected, the young woman's playing is suddenly full of feeling and nuance. The movie fudges by also having her suddenly play with no mistakes. But it gets the central issue right, which is that musicianship is about being in touch with a boundless variety of nuanced emotions, in which sensitivity is refined to the utmost.

In a recent radio interview, Austin Lyric Opera conductor Carl St. Clair recalled telling his trombone players to make a "polite" sound. He could have just as easily told them to play softly. But musicianship is about playing sunsets, about making polite and angry sounds.

The movie is ecumenical in its respect for musical periods and styles. Holland is primarily a classical man, but he is shattered when news comes of John Lennon's murder (the story spans 30 years). He moves himself to tears when he tells his students of Beethoven's deafness, of how the composer removed the legs of the piano so he could feel its vibrations through the floor.

And there's a terrific scene in which he says all that really needs to be said about the power of old-fashioned rock & roll. After putting "Louie, Louie" on the classroom phonograph, he accurately observes that "it's just three chords, played over and over... and I love it! Why?"

He knows why, of course, but he could spend hours verbalizing and not really explain much of anything. Maybe it's how the music expresses sexuality, defiance, autonomy. He could talk about how the rock revolution, an utterly new expression, shook musical foundations and served as an agent of social change. But he still couldn't tell you how those three chords get his feet moving.

Another fine scene occurs as the school puts on its annual musical. The extremely gifted student soprano Rowena (Jean Louisa Kelly), who for purposes of dramatic juice has a crush on Mr. Holland, delivers an absolutely ravishing "Someone to Watch Over Me," by Gershwin. The scene doesn't attempt to explain the power of music; it's just there, a radiant moment in the life of the singer and her audience. It's as fine a song production as you'll find in any Hollywood musical.

By including several scenes of musicians practicing, the movie comes clean about how all this divine expression comes to be. Music is not just a process of profound inspiration hot-wiring itself onto a skilled studio musician. It is the result of tedious and sometimes infuriating hard work, in which hours and hours of practice often yield only the most meager result, all the while producing sound that is excruciatingly awful -- a punishment for no sin. (Ask any string player.)

Mr. Holland's Opus is full of miscues; it has at least eight endings, and it makes the mistake of letting us hear Mr. Holland's neglected "symphony," a case for deserved oblivion if ever there was one. But the film is full of love for its real star -- the gifts of music from Bach to the Beatles and beyond.

It's difficult to express exactly what music does to us, but the movie shares this belief: that it can rally troops and ease grief; that it expresses the inexpressible, ravishes the senses, refreshes our spirit, and gives us strength. Who could ask for more?

"Do you pray, Baroness?" asks Judy Davis' George Sand in Impromptu.

"Well, I'm secretly devout," replies her hostess.

"Do you ever hear an answer?"

"Well... no!"

Davis nods toward the room where Chopin is playing his "Ballade in G Minor": "There's the answer to your prayers." n

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