Saturday, November 20, 2010

More of Helfgott and "Shine"

Shine is a 1996 Australian film based on the life of pianist David Helfgott, who suffered a mental breakdown and spent years in institutions.

It stars Geoffrey Rush, Lynn Redgrave, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Noah Taylor, John Gielgud, Googie Withers, Justin Braine, Sonia Todd, Nicholas Bell, Chris Haywood and Alex Rafalowicz. The screenplay was written by Jan Sardi, and Scott Hicks directed the film. The degree to which the film's plot reflects the true story of Helfgott's life is disputed.

Part Plot: As a teenager, David (played by Noah Taylor) wins the state musical championship and is invited to study in America. Although plans are made to raise money to send David and his family is initially supportive, Peter eventually forbids David to leave, thinking this will destroy the family. Crushed, David continues to study and befriends local novelist and co-founder of the Communist Party of Australia, Katharine Susannah Prichard (Googie Withers). David's talent grows until he is offered a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London, England. David's father again forbids him to go but with the encouragement of Katharine, David leaves and is disowned by his father.

In London, David enters a Concerto competition, choosing to play Rachmaninoff's difficult 3rd Concerto, a piece he had attempted to learn as a young child to make his father proud. As David practises, he increasingly becomes manic in his behaviour. David wins the competition, but suffers a mental breakdown and is admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where he receives electric shock therapy.

Shine won the Academy Award for Best Actor (Geoffrey Rush), and was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Armin Mueller-Stahl), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Music, Original Dramatic Score, Best Picture and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen.

It also won a BAFTA and Golden Globe Award for "Best Actor". The AFIs gave it significant recognition as well, with nine nominations total. Interestingly, several different academies recognized multiple actors in the film for a "Best Supporting Actor" award nomination. There was, of course, Stahl's Academy Award nomination (he also won the AFI Award for Best Supporting Actor), but the BAFTAs and Screen Actors Guild Awards nominated John Gielgud and Noah Taylor (adolescent David Helfgott) for Best Supporting Actor, respectively.

The film was not without criticism. Notably Critics claim that Helfgott's pianistic ability is grossly exaggerated. In a journal article, the New Zealand philosopher Denis Dutton speaks for many critics who claim that Helfgott's piano playing during his comeback in the last decade [of the 1990's] has severe technical and aesthetic deficiencies which would be unacceptable in any musician whose reputation had not been inflated beyond recognition. Dutton claims that, while listening to the movie, he covered his eyes during the parts where Helfgott's playing was used in order to concentrate entirely on the music, and not be distracted by the acting. He felt that the musicianship, when perceived in isolation, was not of a particularly high standard. Despite being widely panned by professional piano critics, Helfgott's recent tours have been well attended because, according to Dutton, Shine's irresponsible glamorisation of Helfgott's ability has attracted a new audience who are not deeply involved in the sound of Helfgott's playing, thereby drawing deserved public attention away from pianists who are more talented and disciplined.

To my way of thinking, "Shine" was about David Rush's acting (supported by a first rate, top line cast) and to pan the film on the basis of Helfgott's musical abilities is pedantic, to say the least, and smacks of churlishness. Helfgott DID play Rach 3, in a London competition and won! That achievement is something few others will do, particularly some ex-patriate Los Angeles professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury sitting in the 'Shakey Isles' of New Zealand!

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