Tarnish beneath the shine

March 09, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- So David Helfgott has finally come to America, arriving like an epilogue to his own cinematic story.

Here at last is the child prodigy whose wrecked and resurrected life is depicted in ''Shine.'' He is doing a star turn.

Mr. Helfgott flew from Australia on a plane that showed, of course, ''Shine.'' He landed in Boston to begin a 10-city concert tour known, of course, as ''The 'Shine' Tour.''

He came in advance of the Academy Awards in which a seven-time contender is ''Shine. '' He came in tandem with the sales success of the CD called ''Shine.'' He came with six producers, his now-famous wife, and thousands of coffee mugs imprinted ''Rise and Shine.''

"Image image image image"

Now, the 49-year-old prodigy, who deteriorated to a mental patient and came back playing piano at a bar, can be heard muttering his own frenetic stream-of-subconscious commentary: ''Keep smiling keep smiling you gotta keep smiling. Image image image image.''

What are we to make of this tour? A classic and uplifting movie about madness and genius, about resilience and the human spirit -- all the good stuff -- is followed by a chilling docudrama. A real-life sequel with a compelling narrative against a real-life soundtrack that falls devastatingly short of genius.

At the Boston opening, where Mr. Helfgott hummed, groaned, smiled and flubbed his way through Liszt, Chopin and Beethoven, critics were trapped between kindness to a vulnerable soul and honesty about a hyped performer. As Mr. Helfgott himself has put it in one of his odd, insightful and rambling refrains, ''Piano playing's got to improve, it's got to improve.''

Surely this tour is no landmark in classical music. But it must be a landmark of some sort in popular culture.

Erases the line

Is this a ''freak show,'' as one critic said, or ''The Celebration of Life'' as its producers dubbed it? Either way it erases the line between celebrating and exploiting its performer. It erases the line between audience and voyeur. Between superstar spotlight and circus sideshow.

Mr. Helfgott's story was never quite what it seemed on the screen. Some of the film's facts are in dispute, other facts of his life were glossed over. Family members don't remember the father beating the son; they do remember that this overbearing and controlling man took care of the mentally ill son for a year and a half before dying.

Nor is Mr. Helfgott's cure quite what it seems. He remains a vulnerable, edgy, engaging, fractured and fragile soul. His music and mind are managed by careful doses of medication. He seems unable to fend for himself . . . but wholly available for marketing.

If Mr. Helfgott thrives on the audiences and the applause -- for as long as it lasts -- perhaps he is no more exploited than those who once found homes and paychecks with Ringling Brothers. If audiences come for the love and hug of him, perhaps the quality of his music or his stability is only background static.

But I cannot help agreeing with the Boston Globe music critic, Richard Dyer, who wrote solemnly, ''The sad fact is that David Helfgott should not have been in Symphony Hall Tuesday night, and neither should the rest of us.''

How we wish for storybook endings. Stories 'R Us. We are the mass consumers of mass-marketed stories of people who overcome great odds and huge obstacles.

Our favorite heroes

A century ago, our favorite heroes traveled from log cabins to the White House. Today we specialize in ''inspirational'' tales about victories over abuse or illness or even a recalcitrant keyboard. Our heroes include the disabled who accomplishes great physical feats, the rape victim who becomes a district attorney, the patient who goes from a locked ward to a corner office.

But we seem less interested in the survivors for whom victory will always be measured by making a meal or getting dressed alone, by playing a melody or throwing a ball. Sometimes it seems that it isn't enough for the weak to become capable; they must be geniuses. It isn't enough that the handicapped win the Special Olympics. We want them to win the real gold.

So it is with David Helfgott. How much audiences want to celebrate a genius who recovered his dream. Instead they encounter a troubled man better equipped to sell coffee mugs than CDs. A man amiably muttering his way across the continent, saying ''Gotta keep smiling. Image image. That's the only cure that's the only cure.''

If David Helfgott had healed enough to only play at the Moby Dick bar in Perth, Australia, it would have been a personal triumph. Playing the symphony halls is a public travesty.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/09/97

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