Wednesday, May 10, 2017


(November 1996, U.S.)

Looking back at the 1990s, it seems as if I saw nearly everything on the big screen, and that's hardly an exaggeration. Because I was doing so much "movie hopping" at many multiplexes in Manhattan, it seemed that I was fulfilling every genre on my "must see" list, from blockbuster to independent to art to revival. It was all out there and I did my best to see as much of it as possible, especially when I didn't have a girlfriend. The night I saw SHINE in Manhattan was hardly a product of "movie hopping", though. A close friend of mine (ex-girlfriend, actually) had joined my for the weekend and we started out by trekking over to the famous Paris Theater just across the street from the Plaza Hotel to see Kenneth Branagh's four hour version of HAMLET. Much to out surprise, tickets were sold out and we were determined not to let our Saturday night go to waste (we'd end up seeing HAMLET just a couple of weeks later, though). We ended up on the east side buying tickets to SHINE instead.

Geoffrey Rush was a new face for me that night. I'd never heard of the man before, but I'd heard that his performance in this film was supposed to be something extraordinary. In this drama, he plays real life pianist David Helfgott, who not only developed his reputation early on as a musical genius, but also suffered a mental breakdown and spent years in psychiatric institutions. According to the film, and it's here that I have to point what may be considered a fine line between what's considered accurate and what's merely "based on a true story", David is raised by a very strict, very unreasonable and often abusive father (played by Armin Mueller-Stahl) who may have been directly involved with David's inevitable road to madness. It's also suggested that the stress and difficulty with strenuous pieces of music, including his choosing to play Rachmaninoff's highly demanding Third Concerto (you may have heard that played in some Bugs Bunny cartoons when you were a kid!) may have also been directly involved with David's inevitable road to madness, particularly if you take his collapse on stage following a performance as a teenager literally. However, if you do any proper research on David Helfgott himself, there's no evidence to suggest such connections between music, parental abuse and his descent into mental breakdown. In reality, David slowly showed signs of schizoaffective disorder while he was living in London in the late 1960s.

By the film's account, the mental instability that David suffers, as it's portrayed by Geoffrey Rush with his mile-a-minute dialogue that would easily give Dustin Hoffman in RAIN MAN a run for his money, is the challenge that's ultimately meant to set things up for a final triumph in music. Despite David's mental challenges, we know of his gifted talent on the piano. In fact, the first triumph comes early enough when he manages to astound all of those sitting inside a popular cafe with a piano in it when they're ready to simply dismiss him as some unstable person of the street who thinks he can play the piano. One can't help but smile with joy as we watch every patron of the cafe light up themselves with joy at the sound of such miraculous music. Music is what allows those that meet David to not only remember the child prodigy he once was, but the beautiful man he is today. So beautiful, in fact, that he even wins the love and affection of the (older) astrologer Gillian (played by the late Lynn Redgrave) and they inevitably marry simply because she's convinced "the stars" say it's the correct match for her (???). Of course, the ultimate triumph of SHINE is the concluding concert in which David is so overcome with joy from the affection and applause of the audience, that he cries right there on stage. It's enough to bring you to tears also.

If music is, indeed, correctly associated with madness, then SHINE is hardly the film that introduces such a concept. Hell, just watch AMADEUS (1984) or PINK FLOYD THE WALL (1982) for an even better sense of such a connection. And although this film is deservedly recognized for its universal acclaim of Rush's performance, it should be noted that it's been attacked from every which way for not only its false portrayal of David's relationship with his father, but also the extent of David's musical abilities, as well. Apparently, he may not have been the genius the film suggests. Decide if you must if that ruins SHINE for you. It doesn't for me. It's cinema, and we're forced to make certain compromises when concluding what's true and what's not. If we took everything off of the screen too damn literally, then chances are Oliver Stone's JFK would suck for many of us (wouldn't want that to happen!).

Favorite line or dialogue:

David Helfgott: "Would you marry me?"
Gillian: "Well, it wouldn't be very practical, David."
David: "Practical? No, of course not. Of course not. But then neither am I, Gillian. Neither am I. I'm not very practical at all."


  1. I like that the poster for this and for Shawshank look like two shots from different angles of the same figure. Nice coincidence that they are together like this.