“What went wrong?” Those three words toll like a funeral bell through the new Australian documentary film, The Eulogy, based on the rise and fall of Australian pianist Geoffrey Tozer.

The words first emerge as Richard Gill addresses a group of students at the Sydney Conservatorium High School. Brandishing an unidentified book, Gill quizzes the students, poor young things trapped like deer before the camera’s arc lamps. The implication here – never directly stated – is that they too, fellow prodigies as some of those bright young kids could be, may suffer the same fate as Tozer.

To the average music-lover, Geoffrey Tozer (1954 – 2009) seemed to lead a charmed life. A child prodigy whose every move was determined by his piano-teacher mother Verna (echoes of Rose and Percy Grainger begin to sound here), Tozer left school at the age of 13 to pursue the gilded life of an international piano virtuoso. The youngest ever Churchill Fellow, a prize-winner in competitions like the International Rubinstein (1980), soloist with international and Australian orchestras and in 37 award-winning CD releases, he seemed to have the world at his feet. Yet, on August 21, 2009, at the age of 54, he died, sick and utterly destitute in a hovel in suburban Melbourne.

During the course of his illustrious career, the young pianist caught the eye of Paul Keating. The music-loving Treasurer created a series of fellowships (dubbed the “Keatings”) designed to give their recipients an adequate annual living wage (up to $58,000, which was taxed). In quick succession, Tozer received two, much to the carping of Keating’s enemies inside and outside federal parliament, especially after he became Prime Minister (1991 – 96).

From around the late 1990s, Tozer’s life began to disintegrate. The major Australian orchestras – principally Sydney and Melbourne – would no longer engage him. His income dried up, just as the dark rumours began to surface and spiral out of reality.

What went wrong?

On October 1, 2009, a memorial service for Geoffrey Tozer was held in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne. (His mother was a Catholic and she raised her son in the church, but he seems not to have been in any way religious.) Paul Keating delivered a 45-minute eulogy. In it, he eviscerated those whose neglect had caused the demise of his friend. The managements of our major orchestras, he thundered, should “hang their heads in shame”.  If anyone needed “a case example of the bitchiness and preference within the Australian arts,” he blow-torched, “here you have it.” Keating’s speech was front-page news. We now had villains (“the music establishment”, Keating called them) and we had a victim. The perfect scenario for a film.

Not quite a decade later, Keating, now 74, returned to the golden lectern in that monumental edifice to re-create his speech. It is the glue which holds Janine Hosking’s extraordinary new film together. In a splendid Italian suit and with glasses perched half-way down his nose, Keating fires straight into the camera lens. Could a former Prime Minister be given an award for ‘Best Actor’? Up in Valhalla, another former PM must be shaking with envy.

The ever amiable and always curious Richard Gill – whose own death occurred so sadly and ironically some 24 hours before I write this – is cast as the Investigator, the Everyman who tries to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Clips of Tozer being interviewed by Leo Schofield and others, Tozer playing with the Sydney Symphony under Myer Fredman and others, Tozer walking his beloved dog Schnabel along the beach, add to the tension and, no doubt, to the film’s budget: the ABC charges mercilessly for their precious footage!

Friends and colleagues address the camera: people like record producer Belinda Webster, cellist David Pereira, musician-barrister Peter Wyllie Johnston (Tozer’s executor), journalist Stuart Rintoul, pianist Rita Reichman, brother Peter Tozer, family friends like Pat Barnes and, most bravely of all, pianist Paul Brickhill who was Tozer’s lover too late in his life.

More telling still is the segment in which Gill is talking with Mary Vallentine, one-time CEO of the Sydney Symphony. Only then do we begin to realise that there is another side to this story. In her characteristic cool and collected manner, Vallentine suggests that Tozer presented some “challenges” for his fellow performers.

In his eulogy, Keating cited a review by Peter McCallum in the Sydney Morning Herald: “Tozer plays as though he is trying things out, playing for himself with everything being imaginative and free. Then suddenly… something extraordinary emerges – a moment of special inspiration, special because it was unplanned, perhaps not fully even noticed or comprehended.”  These words do not appear in the film, but their import is inherent in comments from others. In other words, Tozer regarded each rehearsal, each performance as “different”: like Mozart and Liszt, he would allow a little sparkle of improvisation every time he played the one piece. With around 100 musicians behind him, this was an indulgence orchestra managements could ill afford to entertain.

Peter Tozer tells the camera that his brother, so dominated by their mother, was “not in control of his life”. He didn’t have a driver’s license or a Medicare card, he could not manage his bills, he spent recklessly. (Question: why on earth did he buy that dilapidated convent in Queanbeyan with his Keating money? Keating apparently helped him paint its walls!)

When both his mother and his manager Reuben Fineberg died in 1996, Tozer was left without his social support mechanisms. (Where was Keating at this time? Other friends?) He began drinking, so heavily that Brickhill tried to steer him towards Alcoholics Anonymous. He went days without eating. Towards the end, a couple of cheap bottles of plonk were all he could afford.

Is this what went wrong?

The film does not answer the question at a deep level. It’s all too easy to blame “the music establishment” and other villains, and clearly Tozer himself is responsible to a significant extent.

But there is perhaps a back-story here that the film – purposefully? – doesn’t quite address: is it the way our arts funding organisations provide support for our artists?

Those who survive those wretched application forms – page upon page of questions and little boxes designed by accountants, surely – may receive wads of cash, but who is to say what happens next? We might well want to go out and buy a convent in Queanbeyan! Could there not be some mechanism for guidance on how to run one’s life, to manage health and financial well-being? Perhaps a little more pastoral care, and less fiscal oversight may be needed in some instances. If Tozer had had that kind of support, he might still be with us today, at the age of 64.

This is a disturbing and provocative film. It deserves wide currency and discussion, not just within the arts community, but in our society at large. It’s cheering to see that it will be introduced into school syllabuses next year.