Putting a spotlight of truth on 'Shine'

May 24, 1998|By Judith Schlesinger | Judith Schlesinger,Special to the sun

"Out of Tune: David Helfgott and the Myth of Shine," by Margaret Helfgott with Tom Gross. Warner Books. 294 pages. $24.

All that shines is not gold, and the movie "Shine" is composed of far baser elements: lies and greed. This is Margaret Helfgott's claim in "Out of Tune: David Helfgott and the Myth of Shine" (Warner Books, 1998, with Tom Gross), and she makes a good case for it.

"Shine" is the 1996 blockbuster film about Margaret's younger brother David, a young pianist headed for greatness but derailed by the mental illness "caused" by his tyrannical father, himself scarred by the Holocaust. On screen at least, David collapses after performing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 - the fearsome "Rach 3" - and is rescued by his astrologer wife, Gillian, who "resurrects" his career and takes it to heights unreachable without her.

The movie's hype included Gillian's own book, billed as "the true story that inspired Shine," and a CD of David playing the Rach 3, both best sellers. There was also a frenzied concert tour that appalled the critics and delighted the public for the same reason: its focus on David's psychiatric problems, rather than his musicianship. (The promoters claimed the critics were just suffering from "pianist envy.")

"Out of Tune" methodically rebuts each distortion of David's life, quoting numerous friends and teachers who were shocked and angered by "Shine" and never consulted in its preparation, despite being portrayed in it. The family was excluded and lied to for the decade it took to make the film.

According to Margaret, the story was concocted by director Scott Hicks, together with the self-serving Gillian and a manipulable, increasingly fragile David. Margaret couldn't publish David's letters because Gillian got him to sign over the copyright, but she offers convincing testimony that their late father, who was actually in Australia during the Holocaust, was a good man whose relationship with David was mutually loving, rather than the cauldron of insanity depicted on the screen. She demonstrates that the more cinematic the moment, the less truth there is in it. The Helfgotts finally secured a small disclaimer, but it appears after 279 credits where few will ever see it.

To buttress the fantasy of David's virginal, romantic redemption, TTC the film omits the two women in David's life before Gillian, including a first wife. The psychiatric issue is also distorted, this time on both sides: Margaret, fighting the accusation that her father alone caused David's schizophrenia, goes to the other extreme, claiming it's purely genetic because an aunt was also afflicted.

In fact, both environment and inheritance are implicated in the disorder, but since Margaret had no legal recourse for exonerating her father, her dogmatism is understandable. She also fears that Gillian is currently manipulating David's medication to keep him marketable, positioned somewhere between the Elephant Man and Forrest Gump.

While the book reads like it was hastily written (it was), the story's poignancy makes it worthwhile. But the film's archetypal myths about omnipotent fathers and rescuing lovers will always be more compelling than the written truth.

"Out of Tune" may bring the family some peace, but "Shine" has the greater power - not just artistically, but because it satisfies a universal need: to witness, once again, the irresistible spectacle of genius driven mad.

Judith Schlesinger is a psychotherapist who holds a doctorate i psychology. She is a professor at Pace University and author of "Music and Madness," about the psychological and cultural impact of music.

Pub Date: 5/24/98

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