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Agony and Ivory

The schizophrenic concert pianist in Scott Hicks's Shine combines all the qualities that makers of a "major motion picture" about a tormented artist are looking for. Young David is brilliant, of course, but his ruthless backstage father pounds him into a puddle of nerves. When his mind finally snaps and he reverts to babbling innocence, he's suddenly aflame with wild, quirky humor. The hero comes stuffed to the fingertips with potential for tragedy and redemption. Not only that, there's a rare bonus on the table: The character portrayed here, David Helfgott, is a real person, still living and performing in Australia. In fact, he's the guy playing on the soundtrack, for the most part.

You can bet the Boesendorfer all this will be a winning combination at the box office this holiday season--and at your local Tower Records outlet.

In fact, many moviegoers will absolutely love Shine. They'll admire its tenderness and emotional uplift, and they'll embrace its central message, which says that although brute, wrongheaded love can crush a sensitive soul, that soul can be reborn through the joy of the creative act. It's an irresistibly romantic idea--especially if you're in the Book-of-the-Month Club.

Almost everyone will also be stirred by Shine's canny selection of music--generous snatches of sublimely orchestrated Chopin, Vivaldi and Rachmaninoff blasting through the theater in support of a beautiful story about the agony and ecstasy of a real live artist.

Okay, fine. But a dissenting minority won't be able to get the awful notion out of their heads that Forrest Gump is back and that Mr. Holland has taught him to play "Flight of the Bumble Bee."

In other words, for all of Shine's high-mindedness and arty panache--it's even got Sir John Gielgud as David's musical mentor in London--it's loaded with sap and energized by sheer manipulation. Director Hicks's resume includes not only the incredibly dull, four-hour (going on fourteen) TV series Submarines: Sharks of Steel, which ran on U.S. cable in 1994, but also early stints making TV commercials and music videos. Clearly, he hasn't abandoned those skills. For my money, Shine is less an artistic biography or a psychological portrait of a damaged human being than it is a feat of salesmanship. Almost every scene pushes and shoves the audience toward the conventional--and highly questionable--view that childlike innocence plus love plus a little art on the side do a happy life make. This is, of course, the Gump World View, which soothes worry and wins Oscars but doesn't necessarily hold water.

Hicks and his screenwriter, Jan Sardi, acknowledge that they've taken liberties with their subject, and some of us would sure like to talk with the real David Helfgott about the specifics. Meanwhile, one major omission is particularly glaring: Aside from a brief--extremely brief--glimpse of the young David undergoing electroshock therapy, the film completely spares us (and him) from the long years he spent in mental hospitals. Instead, Shine segues almost magically (though not chronologically) from the young prodigy's crackup following the performance of his lifelong bete noire, Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto, to his release, many years later, from what must have been a long trial of incarceration and treatment. We simply don't see the really ugly part.

What we do see is Armin Mueller-Stahl, in his sternest Germanic pose, as a father so tyrannical and violent that he seems to have leaped out of a Nazi comic strip. That Peter Helfgott happens to be an impoverished Polish Jew with Communist leanings, expatriated to Australia, makes very little difference. In the name of love, but really out of his own disappointment, like the worst Little League dad, he terrorizes his son (portrayed in succeeding stages of life by three extraordinary actors--Alex Rafalowicz, Noah Taylor and Geoffrey Rush) and the rest of the family like some berserk SS officer. "Music is your friend!" he thunders at the little boy. "Everything else will let you down."

Including Papa himself. By the time David has grown into a tremulous, raw-nerved teenager with a gift for playing Schumann, his father has driven off teachers who could help the boy flourish and has forbidden him from taking a crucial scholarship in America. The kid is already on the road to ruin, but Dad has no idea. Tight as a piano string and smoking like a chimney, David falls apart while schooling in London, and his career is gone--just like that. But his father has long since disowned him for simply growing up and leaving the house.

The second (and weaker) half of the film concentrates on the comeback story of Geoffrey Rush's adult David, who is actually more childlike (and thus more "appealing") than the stiff, grave seven-year-old we've met two reels earlier. This shattered grownup, fresh out of the hospital, settles in a kind of halfway house, talks an engaging blue streak peppered with his old obsessions and, when the fancy strikes him, wanders down to the mailbox without any underwear, astonishing a lady neighbor.

This is, of course, the sort of "madness" audiences can find not only palatable but downright entertaining. No scary, agonized fits of rage for our David, no dark thoughts of murder; instead, he splashes in the tub like a baby and kisses women full on the lips when he meets them. As he bounces on the trampoline with the Walkman pounding in his ears, we notice to our delight that he's once again forgotten his pants. What a fun guy. His redemption (and our relief, of course) begin when, one rainy night, he wanders disheveled and seemingly confused into a local wine bar, plops himself onto the bench for the first time in--what, twenty years?--and turns the movie into an inspirational cliche. To wit: They all laughed until he sat down to play the piano. Enter "Flight of the Bumble Bee," the film's emotional peak.

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