Since the film Shine shot him to fame, Helfgott’s star has hardly waned. Yet he has as many skeptics as admirers.
I pull into David Helfgott’s tranquil and secluded property just outside Bellingen in northern NSW with questions whizzing furiously around my mind: What will he be like? Will he be able to maintain a coherent line of discussion? How will he react to problematic questions about his turbulent life? Most of us who have seen Shine, the Academy Award-winning 1997 biopic that so poignantly dramatised his life, are aware that the renowned Australian concert pianist hasn’t had it easy. A difficult relationship with his father, prolonged periods of social isolation and economic hardship, and a lifelong struggle with a psychological condition known as schizoaffective disorder, make an interview with David Helfgott fraught with the risk of reopening deep emotional wounds.
I am warmly greeted at the front door by Gillian, his wife of 20 years, who then calls out, “David, you’ve got guests!” Moments later, David bursts into the room, a welcoming grin painted on his face, and I quickly realise that my ruminations have been a waste of energy. It may seem superfluous to say it, but David Helfgott appears in real life exactly as he is portrayed by Geoffrey Rush in the film: impossibly warm and friendly, and constantly buzzing with an inexhaustible supply of physical and mental energy.
He takes an instant liking to my friend Sam, who has made the trip from Sydney to Bellingen with me. “Sam, Sam, Sam… Oh, South American, are you? South America? Oh, beautiful place… The tango, the tango! Yes, they have the tango – lovely dance. Lovely, lovely. Very sensual.” His speech is a stream of semi-coherent babble that spirals outwards in increasingly oblique tangents. As he chatters with Sam in hushed tones, he grabs him around the shoulders and holds him tight, displaying a tenderness that is endearing and entirely unthreatening.
After having watched Shine, Helfgott’s hyper- loquaciousness and his irresistible need to show affection – behaviour typically found in those suffering from David’s condition – didn’t come as a surprise. Rush’s prodigious mimetic skills had prepared me for it, and Gillian is the first to approve of the actor’s portrayal of her husband. “For a while during the filming of Shine, I thought I had two husbands!” she explains with a good-spirited chuckle. “I’d see a hunched-over male figure scuttle past and wonder, ‘How the heck did David get there so fast?’, and David’s sister Susie would say, ‘Gillian, it’s Geoffrey!’ He really is such a fine actor.” On other aspects of the film’s production, Gillian is equally generous with her praise: “Some dramatic license was used, of course – it had to be – but, by and large, [director] Scott Hicks and his crew worked with the utmost integrity. They captured David’s quirkiness without belittling him, and that’s where the film’s brilliance lies.” For many of the 30-odd years Gillian has spent with David, she has been his carer, spokesperson and personal
manager, as well as his best friend and companion. In addition to looking after him in their home on a day- to-day basis, she organises aspects of his professional life, mediating and managing his media relations. For most of the interview, in fact, I direct my questions about David’s life and career, not to him, but to her, while he entertains Sam at the piano. Later on this year, when Helfgott embarks on his biggest-ever Australian tour at the age of 66, she will be by his side in each of the 23 cities – capital and regional – where, over a three-month period, he’ll be presenting works by Bach, Beethoven and Liszt. When I ask her whether his age or mental condition will be a concern during such a strenuous performance schedule, Gillian says, “He has boundless energy! He’ll be the one dragging me around, not vice versa!”
But what’s it like living with someone of David’s eccentric temperament? Remembering an iconic scene from the film in which the pianist, having left the tap running and flooded the bathroom, is discovered jumping on the trampoline outside wearing nothing but an open trench coat, I press Gillian to reveal some of the challenges daily existence with David might throw at her. “There are trying moments now and then,” she admits, “but altogether, he’s the most loving, kind and fun partner you could ever hope for. He’s come a long way, and he’s quite good at cleaning up after himself now. Sometimes he even tells me off for leaving a mess! We’re quite happy together, and we’re very lucky.”
But life wasn’t always so blissful for David. In the mid ’60s, the 19-year-old pianist received a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music in London. Despite strong objections from his overbearing father, David packed up and left for the British capital. At least at first, things seemed to be going well for the upcoming musician. Lessons under revered British pianist Cyril Smith were progressing smoothly, and the young student’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3 – which would come to be known as his trademark piece – won him the prestigious Dannreuther Prize for Best Concerto Performance.
Things turned decidedly grim for David as the increasingly obvious symptoms of his condition forced him to abandon his studies and cut short his time in the UK. A period of emotional instability and frequent hospitalization followed his return to Australia. He went from one institution to the other, eventually ending up in a halfway house with just a few possessions to his name. It was one of the darker moments of his life that involved very little music-making. And then, just as David may have thought things would never improve, a light at the end of the metaphorical tunnel: he got a job playing in a small wine bar in Perth and, there, met the lady who would become his wife.
Yet Shine may well have been the real defining moment in David’s life – certainly in his career. “It made a huge difference,” Gillian declares emphatically. “When I met David, he had 200 dollars and a cane basket. Now look at what we have.” As she says this, she gestures to the house and the extensive property beyond it, replete with a pool, graceful landscaped gardens, Japanese-style ornaments and a large fountain. “Lots of work came after Shine, and people started to recognize him everywhere.” At this point, tears well up in Gillian’s eyes. “Most importantly, the film gave David a renewed sense of his own self-worth, and since then, his joy for life has grown. His self-esteem is higher and he’s closer to his family. And we have Scott Hicks to thank for that.”
Now for another one of those perilous-but-crucial questions that a thorough examination of David’s life can’t overlook. In the film, David’s father is portrayed almost as a villain – a stern, violent parent who alienates those he loves with his morbid possessiveness and penchant for emotional manipulation. In Shine, David spends most of his life either trying desperately to win and hold down his father’s approval, or, on the contrary, struggling against the compulsion to do so. But how accurately was the father represented? How much of it was truth and how much dramatization?
Gillian’s answer: “We both thought the way David’s father was portrayed was… fair.” She pauses and lowers her voice before the final word in apparent deference to a deceased man who exerted a powerful shaping influence on those around him. “I won’t tell you the comment David made, because it wouldn’t look good in print. His father had an extremely difficult personality, but that had a lot to do with his childhood. Most of his family was killed in the war in Europe, and that made him overprotective of his children – not just David, but David’s sisters too.”
Gillian is clear, however, that despite the professional benefits it undoubtedly brought, David’s career as a concert pianist was alive and well before Shine was released. “David was playing in Europe for ten years before the film. He got stellar reviews after a tour in 1990, and in Copenhagen they were calling his renditions of Liszt incomparable. In Germany, they refer to him as ‘the maestro’. The critics revere him.”
From all this, one might understandably deduce that appreciation for Helfgott’s artistry is universal. Yet nothing could be farther from the truth. One of the more surprising things about David’s musicianship is the extent to which it polarises critics. For every ardent supporter, David has an equally zealous detractor ready to launch an angry tirade against his supposedly shoddy and lacklustre playing. Most notably, in a 1997 review by New York Times chief music critic Anthony Tommasini, his recording of the Rachmaninov 3 was written off as “pallid, erratic and incoherent”, and his live performance in Symphony Hall as “blankly emotionless.”
Peter Feuchtwanger gives a more sanguine interpretation of Helfgott’s erratic playing.“[His] playing for as long as I care to remember has been uneven. So should critics catch him on an off day they cannot be entirely blamed for expressing their wrath. However, many great pianists of the past were uneven.”
Another common attack David faces is that he is a helpless puppet in a carefully engineered publicity ploy aiming to place marketing emphasis on his dramatic life story in the hope that people’s attention will be distracted from his obvious musical shortcomings. Here also, Gillian’s response is resolute: “Critics imply that we dragged David out of a mental institution and onto the stage, but that’s utter nonsense. At the end of the day, when David walks onto the stage, he has to be judged on what he gets out of the piano. He’s never failed to win an audience and, to me, that’s what matters.”
But that very argument could be usurped by his opponents and used in their favour. It is indeed true that David is popular with his audiences. He has an enchanting stage demeanour, and often ‘forgets’ to observe standard classical music performance protocols, shaking hands with audience members and hugging fellow performers. This breaking down of formal barriers between audience and performer endears him to the crowd, scoring him loud cheers and frequent standing ovations (at one concert at the Musikverein in Austria, the notoriously uptight and hard-to-please Viennese crowd gave him a surprise standing ovation at the end of the first half, with numerous listeners returning his enthusiastic thumbs-up in like).
Yet his popularity could simply be a sign that his audience is willing to overlook the technical slip-ups because, in recompense, they’re getting a show of a different kind. Listen to his 1997 recordings of Chopin and Liszt, and it’s painfully evident that his detractors do have a point. His articulation is muddy, his melodic lines lack shape and fullness, his tempos jump about neurotically and, as a result, his renditions lack a sense of structure.
Yet, in spite of the obvious musical deficiencies, does David Helfgott the pianist – and, just as importantly, the man – have something to say that no other musician can? It’s hard to resist a reading of David’s life as a tale of success against the odds, and it is probably true that his publicists, managers and promoters have made use of this angle to construct his public persona. What can’t be denied, however, is that this quality of the triumphant underdog lends a symbolic significance to Helfgott’s music-making. Despite the trials this life has reserved for him, he has effectively become Australia’s most famous classical music personality. And this has happened thanks to a mixture of talent, biographical accident, circumstance and, critically, the devotion of his wife over the years.
Helfgott is, without a doubt, a living symbol of the power of human love and resilience. But, as far as we’re all concerned, the most pressing question is not whether his life is one worth telling and drawing inspiration from (which it clearly is), but rather, whether this is reason enough to make a trip to the concert hall to see him. This I shall leave to you to decide.
David Helfgott tours Australia from August to November this year.