Why It’s Important
When Scott Hicks skipped out on his wife’s birthday party to visit Perth restaurant Riccardo’s in the mid-1980s, he couldn’t have guessed that he’d begun a chain of events that would produce one of Australia’s most celebrated films. Hicks was an award-winning documentarian who’d read the story of David Helfgott – “a pianist recovering from an illness” – in the local paper, and felt compelled to see Helfgott perform for himself. A decade or so later, the Hicks-directed Helfgott biopic Shine earned seven Academy Award nominations and a permanent place in Australian cinematic history.
Helfgott’s story – one of artistic triumph after a troubled upbringing and a devastating mental breakdown – is undeniably inspirational, but so too are the stories behind the film. Hicks’ many years in the financing wilderness, scraping and cajoling to muster up sufficient funds is a great tale of success; so too is Geoffrey Rush rising from theatre actor to the Hollywood A-list.
From the archives: Watch interviews with Geoffrey Rush, Scott Hicks and the team behind 'Shine'
Having finally secured funding, Shine’s path to success was far from certain but ultimately, Shine excelled well beyond the arthouse, accruing roughly $35 million from a modest budget and its aforementioned slew of award nominations – culminating, of course, in Geoffrey Rush famously claiming the Best Actor statuette in 1997.
Beyond its achievements at the box office and during awards season, the film maintains a sterling critical reputation. Reviewing Shine for The Movie Show, David Stratton said, "this is one of my rare five out of fives". Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum hailed it as “beam[ing] with warmth, sensitivity, and fine taste” while the Washingon Post described it as “an extraordinarily touching movie.” Revisiting the film for The Guardian in 2013, Luke Buckmaster found Shine a “powerful, tender-hearted success.” Yet the film was not without its controversies, with David Helfgott’s sister Margaret questioning the veracity of its depiction of her father (played in the film by Armin Mueller-Stahl) as a domineering tyrant.
Watch 'Shine' now at SBS On Demand:
What It’s Really About
1) Geoffrey Rush’s Performance
Film is necessarily a collaborative medium; Shine is a product of Hicks’ years of determination as advocate/director, Jan Sardi’s efforts on the screenplay, Geoffrey Simpson’s crisp cinematography and the contributions of countless cast and crew members. Nonetheless, Shine belongs to Geoffrey Rush.
Let’s pause for a moment and appreciate the unlikeliness of Rush’s ascendance. He was 44 when Shine premiered, a prominent figure of Adelaide’s theatre scene… but one rarely seen on the silver screen. Casting consultant Liz Mullinar picked him for the role, telling Hicks “There’s really only one person who can play this role – Geoffrey Rush.” Hicks heeded her advice, fighting to keep Rush on board even as he was offered formidable financing provided he’d cast a ‘name’ actor instead. Hicks’ tenacity was rewarded and then some, with Rush delivering an inimitable performance; one that made him the first actor in history to win an Oscar, Golden Globe, BAFTA, Sag Award and Critics’ Choice Award for a single role.
The performance has all the hallmarks of an awards season performance, with the dual challenges of both mimicking a real person and portraying Helfgott’s schizoaffective disorder sympathetically. What distinguishes Rush’s acting is not only how perfectly he hits these marks – producing an uncanny facsimile of the real-life Helfgott, imitating the pianist’s “effusive, rambling speech patterns” without toppling into the parodic – but the spark of humanity that, forgive the pun, shines through. Helfgott’s childish mannerisms are imbued with a tender melancholy, a fundamental sadness that’s never quite able to be extinguished.
"Let’s pause for a moment and appreciate the unlikeliness of Rush’s ascendance."
Much like Helfgott himself – whose virtuoso technique was as much a product of hard work as it was natural talent – Rush’s acting is driven by craft and preparation. Helfgott’s trademark babbling is not improvised, but rather born of hours transcribing interview tapes, identifying the wit and wordplay driving the pianist’s mile-a-minute jabbering. (Rush even edited the screenplay’s dialogue to better reflect the natural rhythms of Helfgott’s speech.) The experienced thespian drew on his familiarity of Shakespearean theatre – in particular, his role as the Fool in King Lear – and an understanding of Jungian archetypes to create a rich, multifaceted character; a holy fool, yes, but also an imp, a hero – a person.
WATCH DAVID STRATTON'S ★★★★★ REVIEW
2) Family as Prison
Rush’s inhabitation of the adult Helfgott is relegated to the final third of the film. Beforehand, outside of some connective interludes, the story focuses on David’s formative years, where he’s played by Alex Rafalowicz as a child and Noah Taylor as a teenager. The central figure of these years is not David, but his father, Peter. Peter’s personality is the polar opposite of his son’s; he is domineering rather than meek, assertive rather uncertain. His ambition is all-encompassing. He tells his son, “David, always win. Always win.”
Rather than a haven of warmth and welcome, the Helfgott family home is rendered a prison under Helfgott Sr’s reign. When eldest sister Margaret escapes for a dalliance with a local boy, Peter swiftly mends the gap in their back fence, the camera lingering on the jagged strand of barbed wire between crooked panels of corrugated iron. (A few critics have argued that this scene – combined with a couple of other signifiers – deliberately evokes the Holocaust. The Helfgotts lost relatives in the Holocaust, but the immediate family depicted in the film left Poland before the Nazis arrived.) This imprisonment extends its grasp to consume David’s nascent music career; an acceptance letter to an American university is tossed in the fire, and David is only able to escape to accept a second offer – in London – through subterfuge, after facing a brutal beating.
Armin Mueller-Stahl as David's father, Peter
Shine implies that Peter’s parenting is directly responsible for David’s breakdown in London. After completing a performance of the tortuously difficult ‘Rach 3’ (Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Concerto) – filmed in an expressionistic, intense manner that recalls the stylized boxing bouts of Raging Bull – he collapses. ‘Rach 3’ is significant, not merely because of its difficulty, but because of its link to David’s past, where he strived to learn it to impress his father. As Roger Ebert argued in his review, “[t]he “Rach 3” is a tumult of emotion, and what happens is that David cannot perform it without being destroyed by the feelings it releases.”
This interpretation is dramatically convenient – what is narrative without cause and effect? – but psychiatrically problematic. Many psychiatrists took issue with the abuse-creates-schizophrenia causality of the film; for example, the British Medical Journal argued that the film falsely subscribed to the erroneous assumption that “mental illness must have both a meaning and a cause.” Significantly, Shine sidesteps the suggestion that perhaps Peter’s reluctance to allow his son to head overseas was based on an understanding of his son’s fragile mental condition; a futile attempt to protect his son from undue pressure. The film allows for this interpretation – Noah Taylor’s David is undeniably uncomfortable in an ill-fitting tuxedo attending a cocktail party, and later struggles to fit in at the Royal College of Music – but for the most part regards Peter as the villain of the piece.
As mentioned, Margaret Helfgott was particularly incensed by this approach, eventually penning a refutation – Out of Tune – that took umbrage with the film’s co-option of Holocaust imagery and, in particular, its characterisation of her father as an abusive man. “My father was a very caring man,” she stated, “and the film is false in saying that he beat my brother, David, and that he abandoned him when David became mentally ill.”
3) Talent and Fragility
The veracity of the screenplay is arguably beside the point. “There is no one single Shine story,” after all. While Shine was meticulously researched, there was always going to be some ambiguity over what happened behind closed doors and, crucially, the film never pretends to be a factual interpretation of Helfgott’s life. Every year, biopics are accused of inaccuracies – whether it’s Selma’s presentation of Lyndon B. Johnson or Straight Outta Compton’s omission of Dee Barnes’ assault – that typically have little bearing on the artistic merit of the film in question (or lack thereof).
These questions of accuracy are, granted, more complicated than usual when the film is operating as an advertisement for its subject. David Helfgott toured the world in the wake of Shine’s release, performing to sell-out crowds despite dubious pianistic ability (despite his popularity, classic radio stations refused to play his records because they were “below their minimum broadcast standard.”) A less deterministic narrative – a story that accepted that mental illness doesn’t always come with a neat explanation – might have been more realistic, but it wouldn’t have provided the inspirational comeback narrative that proved so critical to the success of both Helfgott and Shine.
That said, if we accept the film’s paradigm, where a father’s tyrannical obsession is capable of driving a son a mental breakdown and institutionalisation, then we open up a rich vein of thematic analysis. From this perspective, piano is David’s damnation and salvation at once; destroying him amongst the tumult of “Rach 3” but eventually reforging and repairing him in his adult years. His pianistic ability – natural talent honed under the oppressive cloud of his father’s expectations – is then seen as the root of a fundamental fragility: Helfgott as the apotheosis of the delicate artist.
What to Watch Next
For a contemporary representation of musical talent under immense pressure, it’s hard to go past 2014’s Oscar-nominated Whiplash. A fictional story loosely based on director Damien Chazelle’s experience as a jazz drummer, the film centres on the combative relationship that forms between J.K. Simmons’ conductor and his protégé, an utterly committed Miles Teller – a relationship that closely resembles Peter and David’s. The themes addressed are similar to, with each film suggesting that the line between artistic success and self-destruction is thin indeed.
Watch the trailer for 'Whiplash':
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Wandering in the rain, the man looks like one of the walking wounded. His talk is obsessive chatter, looping back on itself, seizing on words and finding nonsense associations for them. He laughs a lot and seems desperately affable. When he sits down at a piano in a crowded restaurant, he looks like trouble, until he starts to play. His music floods out like a cry of anguish and hope.
This is the central image in Scott Hicks' “Shine,” based on the true story of an Australian pianist who was an international prodigy, suffered a breakdown and has gradually been able to piece himself back together. The musician's name is David Helfgott. His life story is not exactly as it is shown here, but close enough, I gather, for us to marvel at the way the human spirit can try to heal itself.
The movie circles in time, using three actors to play Helfgott. Alex Rafalowicz is young David, encouraged to excel at music and chess by a domineering father who slams the chessboard and shouts, “You must always win!” He is savage when his son places second in a national competition. Noah Taylor, so good in “Flirting,” plays the adolescent David, who blossoms at the piano, but is forbidden by his father to accept a scholarship offered by violin great Isaac Stern. Geoffrey Rush plays David as an adult who goes mad and then slowly heals with the help of an understanding woman.
But it is all so much more complicated than this makes it sound. We should begin with David's father, Peter (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust but lost most of his family. Now resettled in Australia, he places family above everything; refusing to let David study at the Royal College of Music in London, he screams, “You will destroy your family!” Peter is capable of violence but also tenderness and love; his family is in the grip of his tyranny, and it is little wonder that David comes unglued, torn between his father's demands that he be perfect at the piano, and his refusal to let him follow his musical career where it will lead.
David finds friendship and support from an old woman (Googie Withers), who encourages his music and helps him find the courage to go to London, where his tutor is played wonderfully, with dryness and affection, by John Gielgud. There he is happy for a time, but during a performance of the formidable Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3, David comes apart.
We see him next as a middle-aged man, a wanderer back in Australia, talking nonsense, his name forgotten by all but a few. (I understand that Scott Hicks got the idea for this film when he came across Helfgott playing in a restaurant and heard his story.) One of the buried motifs of “Shine” is the war that goes on between David's parent-figures. His father is a monster and his mother is weak, but the old woman in Perth helps him, and so does a piano teacher (Nicholas Bell). His key helper is a middle-aged astrologer (Lynn Redgrave), who meets him through a friend, toward the end of his restaurant days. They fall in love, and love saves him.
Music is one of the areas in which child prodigies often excel; two others are mathematics and chess. All three have the advantage of not requiring much knowledge of life or human nature (for technical proficiency, anyway). David's piano playing is at first a skill that comes naturally to him; only later does it become an art, a way of self-expression.
What is terrifying for him is that the better he gets, the closer he comes to expressing feelings that his father has charged with enormous guilt. The “Rach 3” is a tumult of emotion, and what happens is that David cannot perform it without being destroyed by the feelings it releases.
The father is undergoing a process similar to the one he has inflicted on his son. He too cannot deal with the emotions unleashed by his son's playing, which is why he forbids David to study in Europe; if the son becomes good enough, he will fly away on the wings of the music, breaking up the sacred family unit and reopening the father to all the terrors of the Holocaust--terrors against which he has risen up as a bulwark to his family in its little suburban house. The last scene of the movie (filmed, I have been told, at Peter Helfgott's actual grave) tries to acknowledge some of these truths: Peter is a man whose life inflicted great damage, not least upon himself.
There has been much talk in 1996 about films whose filmmakers claim they were based on true stories but were kidding (“Fargo”), and films whose filmmakers claimed they were based on true stories but might have been lying (“Sleepers”). Here is a movie that is based on the truth beneath a true story.
The fact that David Helfgott lived the outlines of these events--that he triumphed, that he fell, that he came slowly back--adds an enormous weight of meaning to the film. I understood Helfgott is preparing a concert tour of North America. Anyone who has seen this movie will want to hear him--not for the “comeback drama,” so much as to hear the music he kept playing during his years in the wilderness, and which led him back again to his true calling.