Shine: 'Am I mad enough?'

Shine: 'Am I mad enough?'
Access fees

David (Noah Taylor) is now a star student at the Royal College of Music in London, and one of the candidates for the Concerto Medal. He proposes performing Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Concerto for Piano for his competition piece. His teacher, Professor Cecil Parkes (John Gielgud) begins the task of preparing him for a piece that he describes as ‘a monster’. Parkes warns him that it’s dangerous, but their preparations go well. Summary by Paul Byrnes.

This is a prime example of the way that Scott Hicks (with editor Pip Karmel) is able to build excitement and dramatic tension through the musical sections of the film. There are very few scenes of David performing until he gets to the Royal College of Music, so that when he attempts the ‘Rach 3’, we can really feel the height of the mountain he’s trying to climb. The use of an actor like Gielgud – capable of such mirth and warmth – provides a contrasting father figure for David, who’s already exhibiting signs of the mental illness that will soon get much worse. We know that the only reason he is attempting the ‘Rach 3’ is because his father has always wanted him to. It’s a kind of message of love to his father, from whom he’s estranged, but the toll it takes on him as a performer is very great.

Shine Synopsis

David Helfgott (played as a child by Alex Rafalowicz) is a piano prodigy, growing up in Perth in the 1950s. His father Peter (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is a loving authoritarian, determined to keep his family together at all costs, a legacy perhaps of having lost family members during the Nazi Holocaust. In his teens, David (now played by Noah Taylor) is offered a scholarship to study in the US but his father forbids him to go. A few years later, David walks out on the family, to take a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London, where he has a complete breakdown. He returns to Perth and spends years in psychiatric care and half-way houses. He is still estranged from his father, but he rediscovers his love of performing by playing piano in a restaurant. The restaurant owner (Sonia Todd) introduces him to one of her friends, an astrologer called Gillian (Lynn Redgrave), and a romance blossoms. Eventually, David returns to the concert hall, where he triumphs.

Shine curator's notes

Shine is a universal story of great talent triumphing over great trauma, but it was controversial at the time of release because of a debate about what caused the trauma. The film appears to suggest that the father Peter, traumatised by the Second World War, damaged the son. One of David Helfgott’s sisters (see below) later claimed that this was not an accurate portrayal of her father. A different interpretation might also be drawn from the film – that David Helfgott’s illness was just that – an illness that had no external causes, but could be affected by stress. In any case, the film is less about the causes than the depiction of how David Helfgott survived and came to terms with his illness. That is what audiences around the world loved about Shine.

There are at least three great performances in the film, not just that of Geoffrey Rush (as the adult David). Armin Mueller-Stahl is superb as the father, a man whose capacity for love is as obvious as his inability to compromise or forgive. The third great performance is Noah Taylor’s as the adolescent David. In some ways this is the hardest role, because he has to take David from shy 14-year-old to the young man who touches greatness at the Royal College of Music, even as his mind is cracking wide-open. It’s the kind of eccentric role that Taylor has made his specialty, but he gives one of the best performances of what is now already a long career (see The Year My Voice Broke, made in 1987). Geoffrey Rush won almost every award possible in 1997, including the Oscar for best actor in a leading role. The performance made him an international star, with good reason. He makes Helfgott’s mania credible, without becoming self-conscious. He makes the character loveable, without making him pathetic. David’s intelligence is always visible through the fog of his word-plays, and Rush brings a further layer of credibility by playing the piano himself (although the soundtrack mostly uses Helfgott’s own playing). This was also the film that catapulted director Scott Hicks to an international career. He was nominated for an Oscar as best director, one of seven Oscar nominations for Shine. The others were for best film (Jane Scott), best original screenplay (Jan Sardi) and story (Scott Hicks), best supporting actor (Armin Mueller-Stahl), best original score (David Hirschfelder), best editing (Pip Karmel), and best actor (Rush).

The controversy over accuracy stems largely from a book written by David’s sister Margaret (Out of Tune – David Helfgott and the Myth of Shine), after the film’s success. She claimed the film was wildly inaccurate and demeaned her father, who died in 1975. Rather than a tyrant, he was a loving father and husband who was, if anything, too lenient with his wayward son. Scott Hicks wrote a letter to The Wall Street Journal in rebuttal, in which he said that other members of the family supported his depiction of Peter Helfgott and that he withheld far more serious accusations of abuse against the father, out of consideration for the family and the audience. Hicks said he stands by the research that informed the film: ‘I maintain that all of the actions of the character Peter Helfgott have their origins in real events’.

Notes by Paul Byrnes

Education Notes

This clip shows the intense pressure building within David Helfgott (Noah Taylor) as he prepares, under the supervision of his teacher Professor Cecil Parkes (John Gielgud), to play Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto for the upcoming finals competition at the Royal College of Music. A series of short scenes accompanied by the music of the concerto show him working with his teacher and practising in his rooms alone.

Educational value points

  • Skilful filmmaking helps to convey Helfgott’s emotional state. His teacher is alarmed at his risky decision to play the ‘Rach 3’. The pace of the sequence increases as the tension builds. The camera is never still as he practises, and his teacher drives him on. In his lonely room a photograph of his father exhorts him. In another scene the camera moves slowly closer to the Albert Hall, suggesting that the day of the competition is looming.
  • The central importance of the music is exemplified in this clip. The sound of Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto drives the sequence, growing increasingly frenetic and building the tension. The concerto was supposedly one of David’s father’s favourite pieces but is represented as ‘monumental’ by his teacher. It is therefore emblematic of David’s love for his father but represents a danger to his sanity. The viewer is aware of this as the sequence unfolds.
  • The scenes in the clip and the ‘Rach 3’ represent a crucial period in the life of David Helfgott. Helfgott succeeded brilliantly in mastering the music but at the cost of his sanity. He had a mental breakdown and his promising musical career ended at that time. He returned to Australia and for many years was institutionalised. After the release of the film Shine he performed in concerts to great popular, although not critical, acclaim.
  • The threatening language used in the clip signals to the viewer that the ‘Rach 3’ represents a danger to David Helfgott. The music is referred to by David as a ‘mountain’ and by his teacher as ‘monumental’ with the melodies competing and ‘jousting’ within it. No-one has been mad enough, David is told, to take it on in performance at his level. Performing it is a risk without a safety net and he must tame the monster piano or it will swallow him whole.
  • David’s impending breakdown is suggested by the scenes in his room. His toast burns. He holds out his gloved fingers and cuts the tips of the gloves off so he can continue to play despite the cold. He plays with a blindfold on, and is then shown sharing a meal of tinned food with his cat. Throughout these scenes the piece he is learning dominates the soundtrack as it is dominating him.
  • David asks his teacher if he is ‘mad enough’ to play Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto, which is ironic given that in the process of learning the piece to perform it in the competition he succumbs to mental illness. The illness that afflicted David Helfgott has not been definitively diagnosed, although in her book Out of Tune his sister claims he had a ‘schizo-affective disorder’. The film clearly links his mental problems with the trauma of his upbringing.
  • David’s music teacher, Professor Cecil Parkes, is played by English actor, producer and director Sir John Gielgud (1904–2000). Knighted in 1953 for services to the theatre, Gielgud’s career as an actor spanned almost 80 years and he was still acting until a month before his death at the age of 96. A renowned Shakespearean actor, he also appeared on television many times and appeared in many films including Arthur (1981), for which he received an Academy Award.
  • In this clip the young David Helfgott is played by Australian actor Noah Taylor. Taylor was 26 when he played David, initially as a 14-year-old. His 1987 film debut, in The Year My Voice Broke, was followed in 1991 when he starred in its sequel, Flirting. His role in Shine gained him a nomination for best leading actor at the 1997 Academy Awards. Since going to Hollywood his films have included Vanilla Sky (2001) and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001).

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Production company:
Momentum Films
Jane Scott
Scott Hicks
Jan Sardi
Story by:
Scott Hicks
Music :
David Hirschfelder
Geoffrey Rush, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Nicholas Bell, Noah Taylor, Kelly Bottrill, Danielle Cox, John Gielgud, Rebecca Gooden, Marta Kaczmarek, Alex Rafalowicz, Lynn Redgrave, Sonia Tood, Googie Withers
Produced in association with BBC and Pandora Cinema. Produced with the assistance of the Film Finance Corporation Australia, Film Victoria and the South Australian Film Corporation

David and his teacher contemplate what he should perform for the Concerto Medal.
Professor Parkes Rachmaninoff! Are you sure?
David Ah, kind of. I’m never really sure about anything, Mr Parkes.
Professor Parkes The Rach 3! It’s monumental.
David It’s a mountain. It’s the hardest piece you could ever-est play.
Professor Parkes No-one’s ever been mad enough to attempt the Rach 3!
David Am I mad enough, Professor? Am I?

David begins to play.
Professor Parkes Think of it as two separate melodies jousting for supremacy. The hands, giants! 10 fingers each! Performing is a risk, you know. No safety net. Make no mistake, David. It’s dangerous. People get hurt. You have to learn to be able to play it blindfolded. The page, for God’s sake! The notes!
David Sorry, sir. Forgetting the notes.
Professor Parkes Would it be asking too much to learn them first?
David And then forget them?
Professor Parkes Precisely. Just give me the fingering.

We see a sequence of David’s daily life interspersed with endless practice. 
Professor Parkes David, come on my boy. We’re going to rest the muscles of the fingers today and try to exercise the imagination. First movement, cadenza. Let’s pick it up from pom … pom-pom …
David Pom-pom …
Professor Parkes Pom-pom pom-pom.
David Pom-pom …
Professor Parkes Your hands must form the unbreakable habit of playing the notes so you can forget all about them, and let it come from here. The heart! That’s where it comes from. 
David continues to play.
Professor Parkes Don’t you just love those big fat chords? You have to tame the piano, David, or it’ll get away from you. It’s a monster. Tame it, or it will swallow you whole!
David finishes the piece and Parkes laughs.
Professor Parkes Coming along nicely, David.