Truth and consequences Movie: When the real David Helfgott stands up, he's not much like the pianist whose story is told in 'Shine.' To some fans of the film, that matters.

March 23, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

I stopped paying attention to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' annual awards presentation on TV years ago. But I might watch tomorrow night -- if only because I'm curious to find out if the movie "Shine" wins an Oscar.

The Australian-made "Shine," which was filmed on a shoestring budget, became a surprise hit when it was released late last year and has been nominated in seven categories, including best picture. The film tells the "real-life" story of the pianistDavid Helfgott (portrayed by Geoffrey Rush, who has been nominated for a best actor award). The movie tells Helfgott's story in three stages: his brutal abuse at the hands of his demanding, domineering father; his descent into madness after a prize-winning performance of Rachmaninoff's incredibly difficult Third Concerto; and his resurrection as a man and a musician.

"Shine" has made a star out of the real Helfgott, whose recording of the Rachmaninoff concerto has sold well over 200,000 copies in the United States in the past two months and which threatens to become the biggest-selling straight classical release in history. Moreover, Helfgott's current concert tour has already surpassed the phenomenal attendance figures set by pianist Ignace Jan Paderewski at the turn of the century.

But ever since his first concert in Boston three weeks ago, the real Helfgott has become a source of controversy that has overshadowed the movie. "Shine" not only sanitizes Helfgott's emotional problems, it also presents him as a man who is resurrected as a sort of Holy Fool, who is charming, profound and sexy and who plays the the piano like Vladimir Horowitz.

The real David Helfgott, it turns out, is a heavily medicated, rather disturbing figure, who is dysfunctional as both a man and a musician and who would be unable to live outside an institution were it not for constant attention from his astrologer wife, Gillian.

Scathing criticism

His Boston recital prompted scathing reviews that questioned the motives of his presenters.

The millions the Helfgott tour is expected to clear by its conclusion later this month even occasioned several newspaper editorials, including one from the New York Times, calling into doubt the moral and cultural health of the United States.

Such angry responses make me wonder if the appearance of the real David Helfgott may have created a backlash that will keep "Shine," which already possesses several Golden Globes (as well as awards from the Los Angeles and New York film critics' associations), from winning any Oscars.

What has made people angry is not simply the truth. It is that reality has been allowed to violate what is called the "suspension of disbelief" -- something so fundamental to the pleasure one receives from reading novels, watching films or attending plays that those activities cannot take place without it.

There is a scene in Shakespeare's next-to-last play, "The Winter's Tale," that illustrates how central this is to storytelling. A con man, named Autolycus, happens upon some not-very-intelligent shepherds and shepherdesses, and -- observing what easy marks they are -- he offers broadsheet ballads for sale. Upon hearing that the ballads are printed, the shepherdess Mopsa immediately wants to buy some, saying, "I love a ballad in print, for then we are sure they are true."

Printed or not, Autolycus' stories are preposterously, hilariously false. But these patsies are willing to listen to the most outlandish tales -- from a story about a moneylender's wife who gave birth to 20 moneybags to one about a maiden who was transformed into a singing codfish -- as long as Autolycus is willing to certify their truth.

Response to fiction

Shakespeare's simpletons are not very different from the rest of us. Our responses to fiction, whether we are addicted to bodice-rippers or sophisticated enough to enjoy the novels of Virginia Woolf, depends upon our belief that what we are reading is in some ways true.

Indeed, the most outraged responses to the Helfgott phenomenon seem to come from a group one would have expected to be the least surprised by the truth: the music critics who traveled to Boston to hear his performance.

I take a certain amount of guilty pleasure in having been the critic who led the chorus of discontents -- in an article that appeared in The Sun more than two months ago. But I must also confess part of the reason I wrote the piece was that I, too, was taken in. Like almost everyone else who saw "Shine," I wanted to believe in the truth of David Helfgott's rise, fall and resurrection.

It did not at first occur to me -- perhaps because I had heard only his recording of the Rachmaninoff concerto and the circus sideshow atmosphere surrounding him had not yet started -- that the truth about the real David Helfgott might poison the pleasure of seeing the fictional story based on his life.

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