Tear-jerker touches a chord

10th May 1996 at 01:00

A film with an arts education message is making a political impact, reports Tim Cornwell

Hillary Clinton says it is probably her favourite film of the year. And Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, says it has "special power for people who know something about the teaching life".

Mr Holland's Opus, a two-hour tear-jerker about a thwarted composer who finds his life's work as a music teacher instead, and starring Richard Dreyfuss, opens in Britain this weekend.

The question is whether it can emulate its surprising commercial and political success in the US.

The film recently earned Mr Dreyfuss, better known for chasing sharks in Jaws and aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, an invitation to the White House from Mrs Clinton to speak about the impact of arts in education.

While colder-hearted critics have not been kind - a writer for the Los Angeles Times called it "a film of epically hollow proportions which ends on a symphony of false notes" - Mr Holland's Opus seems to have touched a chord, notably among US teachers.

In its first two weeks of business it grossed $23 million (Pounds 16 million) in ticket sales across the US, about what the film cost to make. At the same time it was cited on the floor of the House of Representatives in debates on arts education.

And according to Mr Dreyfuss' staff, he has had hundreds of requests from people asking him to lobby school boards to keep treasured arts and music programmes. "We've had letters from teachers all over the country saying they were going to resign until they saw the film," said his political consultant Donna Bojarski.

Mr Dreyfuss plays Glen Holland, a clubroom piano player holding hard to his dream of perfecting a symphony when he reluctantly takes the teaching job as a temporary measure to make ends meet. Sure enough he learns there's more to life than fame and fortune.

The film starts in the wholesome high school days of the early 1960s, in the sort of setting Mr Dreyfuss himself once played in American Graffiti. It rapidly fast forwards through three decades, and Mr Holland is eventually found fighting spending cuts imposed by a blinkered 1980s school board and implemented by a cruel-faced deputy head.

Nearly half of the film was shot at Grant High School in Portland, Oregon, where the story is set. Curiously there's no attempt to play Mr Dreyfuss against racial problems, crime, or drugs. In a firmly suburban setting, the schoolroom enemies are boredom and wasted potential, Mr Holland's as well as his pupils.

But the film inspired this response from Lois Tinson, president of the California Teachers' Association: "Since the opening of Mr Holland's Opus, a day does not pass without my hearing praise of this wonderful film. Teachers love it . . . thank you for reminding us all of the joys of shaping the lives of students."

On the film's opening night Mr Dreyfuss in a speech carried live to audiences around the US, including many teachers' groups, spoke for the film's message that arts are not superfluous.

With children of his own, he is a politically active figure in Hollywood, who has campaigned for the cause of volunteerism, including President Bill Clinton's treasured Americorps programme. This week he was on his way to Israel on a project designed to foster Middle East peace through person-to-person contacts.

The film's high profile surprised its producers. But studio executives at Interscope Communications were apparently convinced by the film's ability - even in script form - to reduce audiences to tears.

It includes unabashed sentimental episodes like the one where Mr Dreyfuss shakily sings John Lennon's song Beautiful Boy to his estranged son. "I got dragged into this gig kicking and screaming, and now it's the only thing I want to do," he says of his teaching life.

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