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Shine is a 1996 Australian film based on the life of pianist David Helfgott, who suffered a mental breakdown and spent years in institutions. It stars Geoffrey Rush, Lynn Redgrave, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Noah Taylor, John Gielgud, Googie Withers, Justin Braine, Sonia Todd, Chris Haywood, and Alex Rafalowicz. The screenplay was written by Jan Sardi, and Scott Hicks directed the film. The degree to which the film's plot reflects the true story of Helfgott's life is disputed (see below). The film made its US premiere at the Hawaii International Film Festival.


As the film opens, a man (Geoffrey Rush) wanders through a heavy rainstorm finding his way into a restaurant. The restaurant's owner tries to determine if he needs help. Despite his manic mode of speech being difficult to understand, she learns that his name is David Helfgott and that he is staying at a local hostel. She returns him to the hostel and despite his attempts to engage her with his musical knowledge and ownership of various musical scores, she leaves.

We flashback to David's childhood, where David is competing in a local music competition. Helfgott has been taught to play by his father, Peter (played by Armin Mueller-Stahl), a man obsessed with winning who has no tolerance for failure or disobedience. David is noticed by Mr. Rosen, a local pianist who, after an initial conflict with Peter, takes over David's musical instruction.

As a teenager, David (played by Noah Taylor) wins the state musical championship and is invited to study in America. Although plans are made to raise money to send David and the family is initially supportive, Peter eventually forbids David to leave, accusing him of wanting to destroy the family. Crushed, David continues to study and befriends local novelist and co-founder of the Communist Party of Australia, Katharine Susannah Prichard (Googie Withers). David's talent grows until he is offered a scholarship to the Royal College of Musicmarker in London, Englandmarker. David's father again forbids him to go but with the encouragement of Katharine, David leaves and is disowned by his father.

In London, David enters a Concerto competition choosing to play Rachmaninoff's 3rd Concerto, a piece he attempted to learn as a young child to make his father proud. As David practices, he increasingly becomes manic in his behaviour. David wins the competition, but suffers a mental breakdown and is admitted to a psychiatric hospital where he receives electric shock therapy.

David recovers to the point where he is able to return to Australia, but is still rejected by his father. David relapses and is readmitted to a mental institution as a young man. Years later, a volunteer at the institution recognizes David and knows of his musical talent. She takes him home but discovers that he is difficult to control, unintentionally destructive, and needs more care than she can offer. She leaves him at the hostel from earlier in the film. David has difficulty adjusting to life outside of the institution, and often wanders away from the hostel. At this point, the film resumes chronologically with David wandering to the nearby restaurant.

The next day David returns to the restaurant and the patrons are astounded by his ability to play the piano. One of the owners befriends David and looks after him. In return David plays at the restaurant. It's through the owner that David is introduced to Gillian (Lynn Redgrave). David and Gillian fall in love and marry. With Gillian's help and support David is able to come to terms with his father's death and stage a well received comeback concert presaging his return to professional music.


Shine won the Academy Award for Best Actor (Geoffrey Rush), and was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Armin Mueller-Stahl), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Music, Original Dramatic Score, Best Picture and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen.

It also won a BAFTA and Golden Globe Award for "Best Actor". The AFI gave it significant recognition as well, with nine nominations total. Interestingly, several different academies recognized multiple actors in the film for a "Best Supporting Actor" award nomination. There was, of course, Stahl's Academy Award nomination (he also won the AFI Award for Best Supporting Actor), but the BAFTAs and Screen Actors Guild Awards nominated John Gielgud and Noah Taylor (adolescent David Helfgott) for Best Supporting Actor, respectively.


The film's title Shine connotes David's brightness while coming from a history of darkness. Several previous alternate titles included "Flight of the Bumblebee" and "Helfgott".


The movie has attracted reproach on two main grounds:

Margaret Helfgott's book

Critics allege that certain events and relationships in David's life are portrayed with wild inaccuracy, sometimes even fabricated, resulting in damage to the reputations of real people. Helfgott's sister Margaret Helfgott, in her book Out of Tune, stresses in particular the case of Helfgott's father Peter Helfgott, who was, according to her, a loving husband, over-lenient parent and very far from the abusive tyrant portrayed in Shine. Peter Helfgott's decision to prevent David from going overseas at the age of 14 was not made with the vindictive spirit portrayed in Shine, she claims, but a reasonable judgment that he was not ready for such independence. Helfgott's mother might agree; on seeing Shine, she said she thought that a great evil had been done. Margaret Helfgott further claims to have been pressured by David's second wife Gillian and by the publishers of the film to stop making trouble for them by telling her story. Although Margaret Helfgott has possession of letters between Helfgott and his father, the copyright is held by Gillian Helfgott who has prevented their contents from being published.

Scott Hicks published a letter to The Wall Street Journal when Margaret Helfgott’s book first came out. The following are excerpts from Hicks' response to the reviewer for The Wall Street Journal of August 27, 1998:

Australian writer John Macgregor did much of the research for Shine, and wrote its 'treatments' (versions of the story preceding the actual scripts).

In the midst of the controversy, his letter to The Australian was published in November 1996:

Pianistic ability

Critics also claim that Helfgott's pianistic ability is grossly exaggerated. In a journal article, the New Zealand philosopher Denis Dutton speaks for many critics who claim that Helfgott's piano playing during his comeback in the last decade has severe technical and aesthetic deficiencies which would be unacceptable in any musician whose reputation had not been inflated beyond recognition. Dutton claims that, while listening to the movie, he covered his eyes during the parts where Helfgott's playing was used in order to concentrate entirely on the music, and not be distracted by the acting. He felt that the musicianship, when perceived in isolation, was not of a particularly high standard. Despite being widely panned by professional piano critics, Helfgott's recent tours have been well attended because, according to Dutton, Shine's irresponsible glamorisation of Helfgott's ability has attracted a new audience who are not deeply involved in the sound of Helfgott's playing, thereby drawing deserved public attention away from pianists who are more talented and disciplined.

The film's defenders say that such criticisms have rather missed the film's point: that the thrust of Shine was not the latter-day Helfgott's technical ability, but his ability to survive, and play at all, given what life had thrown at him.

It has moreover been pointed out that the early career triumphs documented by the film are factual. Violin virtuoso Isaac Stern wanted to bring Helfgott to the US to mentor; conductor Daniel Barenboim was a great admirer; and Helfgott's Royal Academy tutors did indeed praise his playing in such terms as "sheer genius".


Music credits


    Written by Reg Presley, © 1966 Dick James Music Limited

    Performed by the Troggs, (P) 1966 Mercury Limited

    Written and performed by Johnny O'Keef

    © 1959 Victoria Music / MCA Music Australia Pty Ltd, (P) 1959 Festival Records Pty Ltd
  • POLONAISE in A flat major, Opus 53

    Composed by Frederic Chopin, Performed by Ricky Edwards

    composed by Robert Schumann, Performed by Wilhelm Kempff

    (P) 1973 Polydore International GmbH Hamburg

    From Violin Concerto in B minor by Niccolo Paganini

    Transcribed for piano by Franz Liszt, Performed by David Helfgott
  • HUNGARIAN RHAPSODY No. 2 in C sharp minor

    Composed by Franz Liszt, Performed by David Helfgott

    Composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff

    Arranged by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Performed by David Helfgott
  • GLORIA, rv 589

    Composed by Anotonio Vivaldi, Arranged by David Hirschfelder and Ricky Edwards

    © PolyGram Music Publishing / Mushroom Music

    Composed by Franz Liszt, Performed by David Helfgott

    Composed by Anotonio Vivaldi, Arranged by David Hirschfelder and Ricky Edwards

    © PolyGram Music Publishing / Mushroom Music

    Performed by Jane Edwards (Soprano)

    Geoffrey Lancaster (Harpsichord) and Gerald Keuneman (Cello)

    composed by Harry Dacre

    Arranged and Performed by Ricky Edwards, © Mushroom Music

    Composed by Luigi Denze, Arranged by David Hirschfelder and Ricky Edwards

    © PolyGram Music Publishing / Mushroom Music
  • PIANO CONCERTO No. 3 in D minor Opus 30

    Composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Arranged by David Hirschfelder

    Performed by David Helfgott, © PolyGram Music Publishing
  • PRELUDE in C sharp minor Opus 3, No. 2

    Composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff

    Performed by David Helfgott, (P) 1994 RAP Productions, Denmark
  • SYMPHONY No.9 in D minor Opus 125

    Composed by Ludwig van Beethoven,Arranged by David Hirschfelder and Ricky Edwards

    © PolyGram Music Publishing / Mushroom Music
  • APPASSIONATA SONATA, No.23 in F minor Opus 57

    Composed by Ludwig van Beethoven, Performed by Ricky Edwards
  • PRELUDE in D flat major, Opus 28 No.15

    Composed by Frédéric Chopin


Geoffrey Rush resumed piano lessons - suspended when he was 14 - in order to act as his own hand double. .

Nicole Kidman has an uncredited cameo in a bar scene.


  2. Margaret Helfgott and Tom Gross, Out of Tune: David Helfgott and the Myth of Shine, ISBN 0-446-52383-6, pub. Warner Books (1998)
  3. Denis Dutton, Philosophy and Literature 21 (1997): 340-345 [1]
  4. Playing for their lives - interview with actors Noah Taylor and Geoffrey Rush - Interview

See also

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