David Helfgott is a pianist most famed as the subject of the Australian movie “Shine”.
Born in Melbourne, Australia in 1947, Helfgott showed great promise as a musician from a very early age. The family moved to Perth in Western Australia, and as a teenager, Helfgott won the state finals of the ABC Instrumental and Vocal Competition six times. In 1966, Helfgott travelled to London to study at the Royal College of Music. He seemed set for a brilliant career, receiving standing ovations from audiences of thousands.
In the early 70’s, David Helfgott suffered a serious nervous breakdown. He returned to Perth in 1973, was admitted to hospital and underwent psychiatric treatment for a decade. While living in a crowded psychiatric lodge, he maintained a rigourous rehearsal regime – practising for up to 10 hours a day. He was dependent on prescription drugs as well as nicotine and caffeine.
In true story-book fashion, Helfgott returned to music when asked to fill in for an absent pianist at a Perth restaurant. Diners mocked him – but abruptly stopped when he began a faultless, impassioned rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous piece “The Flight of the Bumblebee”. Helfgott played for four hours to thundering applause. The restaurant owner took Helfgott to live in his own home – where David met Gillian Murray, an astrologer – the woman he married and who nurtures David’s health and career.
Helfgott returned to the music world – giving a major recital in 1984 – his first in over 12 years. He continued his long interrupted studies, and recorded Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto in 1995 – a piece often considered to be the most difficult piano piece ever written. The Japanese composer Seizum Fukami composed a rhapsody for Helfgott. His wife Gillian had weaned him from his 130 per day cigarette habit and his equally excessive coffee drinking, his health was improving. David Helfgott had made a triumphant return from obscurity.
In 1986, Australian filmmaker Scott Hicks read an article on Helfgott by Adelaide writer Samela Harris. Inspired by Helfgott’s story, Hicks began a ten year project – to film “Shine” – a movie based on David Helfgott’s story. While the film has elements of fiction, it is said to be essentially the truth behind the man. The film was a triumphant success – winning an Academy Award – and made Helfgott one of the most famous piano players of the day.
David Helfgott continues to perform to sell out crowds. While not always critically acclaimed, audiences love him. Critics have referred to his career as the exploitation of a mentally ill man – an accusation denied by his wife. Gillian Helfgott is the author of Love You to Bits and Pieces : Life With David Helfgott.
There is controversy over the movie Shine and its portrayal of David’s family life, most importantly, its portrayal of his father, Peter. The film portrays him as a tyrant, unforgiving, harsh, and physically abusive. The book Out of Tune : David Helfgott and the Myth of Shine by David’s sister Margaret completely rejects the image of Peter Helfgott shown in the film. As David Helfgott does not give interviews, the truth is hard to find. Shine was only ever billed as being inspired by Helfgott’s life, never as a biographical documentary.
Whatever the truth, there can be no doubt that Helfgott is a brilliant pianist, that his shows thrill the audiences with their atmosphere and energy. He is an exuberant, affectionate man, and if he is happy performing, that is what he should be doing.
Coming back to this writeup, years later, I'm amazed at how much my writing style has changed. A particular incident caused me to create this w/u, and now, without thinking about it, I would automatically just start the writeup with the story. Back when I wrote this, I guess not. So here it is:
Red Pawn and I were at a Larry Adler concert. As we found our seats, an older gentleman grabbed me by the hand, kissed my cheek, and said "thankyou for coming". Then did the same to Red. The lady with him led him away. We looked at each other, looked at the guy, ascertained that no, it wasn't Adler (you never knew, with that guy), and sat through the brilliance of Larry's concert.
After the concert, as we hung around backstage hoping to meet the greatest mouth-organ player of all time, we could see through the upstairs window that he had a visitor. Shortly afterwards, the same strange old man and his wife came out. Again, he hugged us and thanked us for being there. His wife said "come along, David" - and Red Pawn and I looked at each other in sudden, illuminated understanding.
I'm told that Helfgott hugs people wherever he goes.
“Out of the gloom, a genius reborn”, article in the Adelaide Advertiser, May 28, 1986, by Samela Harris.