mythologized tropes of romantic struggle surrounding the soundtrack
concertoconfrontation resolved through reconciliation or
renunciation, affliction overcome through loving relationshiphave
prompted multiple retellings in films over the decades. A recent
example is Shine115
(1996), purportedly the "true story" of pianist David
Helfgotts early career, his struggle against mental illness,
and his redemption through the nurturing woman who "saves"
him and eventually marries him.116
a further narrative about confrontation with the patriarchal social
order, Shine fits Nowell-Smiths assertion that "the
Hollywood melodrama is also fundamentally concerned with the childs
problems of growing into a sexual identity within the family,
under the aegis of a symbolic law which the Father incarnates"
(73). In the film, David struggles against the social order represented
by his excessively overbearing father and the "battleground"
environment of his childhood home. David is convinced that he
will be "punished for the rest of [my] life" for his
disobedience in leaving (and thus "destroying") the
patriarchal family unit, and for the disappointments he has caused
his ambitious stage-father. In contrast to the castrating paterfamilias,
several sympathetic females (replacing his own weak and ineffectual
mother) nurture Davids agency and desire: the waitress Sylvia
(who takes him in from the rain and gets him a job), the maternal
Katharine (who supports his plans to study abroad), the volunteer
social worker Beryl (who takes him out of the sanatorium), and
finally the loving Gillian.117
Thus Shine as well leans towards the category of the womans
film, for Gillian can be regarded as the ultimate heroine of Davids
composition used to signify Davids struggle in Shine
is Rachmaninoffs Third Piano Concerto in D minor, op. 30.
Part of the films hype involved fetishizing the technical
difficulty and musical challenge of this piece (witness popular
press articles such as "Between the Rach III and a Hard Place:
A Notoriously Brutal Concerto Stars in a New Film"118)
in order for its practice and performance scenes to carry dramatic
impact. "Its a piece for elephants, elephantine!"
David chatters. His piano teacher warns Davids demanding
father, "Whatever you do, dont you inflict bloody Rachmaninoff
on him! Hes not ready!" The professor exhorts David
to imagine the "monumental Rach 3" in terms of a confrontation
between concerto agents: "Think of it as two separate melodies
jousting for supremacy!" The concerto performance itself
is presented as a dangerous interaction: "Performing is a
risk, you know! No safety net!" his professor warns him.
"Make no mistake, Davidits dangerous. You will
complete the melodramatic mythology around the soundtrack concerto,
an element of psychosomatic affliction is central to the plot
and to the characterization of David:
"No ones ever mad enough to attempt the Rach Three!"
the psychologically disturbed soloist is no match for this intransigent
concerto. As he crouches over the keyboard, sweat pouring from
his face, Davids fingers race through the virtuoso passages
almost with a mind of their own, but his loss of mental command
is cinematically presented as a loss of hearing (for the film
viewer as well), and the soundtrack music fades away into a dull
thumping of the keys against the piano keybed. David is physically
and emotionally ailing as he struggles valiantly through the concerto,
and he collapses onstage as the ovation begins. His glasses also
fall as he reaches for them, compounding his deafness with blindness:
the castration is complete. Davids confrontation with the
patriarchal social order (represented by the father, professor,
composer, conductor, orchestra) has rendered him senseless and
broken. Indeed, Shines "moral" as spoken
by David, is that "Its a life-long struggle to survive
A struggle to keep your head above water and
not get it chopped off."119
"Am Imad enough, Professor? Am I?"
its mix of melodramatic fable and real-life biography, Shine
inspired popular interest in the real David Helfgott and motivated
impressive sales of his recordings of the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto.120
The films story also prompted magazine articles and a book
of memoirs by his wife, Gillian Helfgott, Love You to Bits
(perhaps an unintentional allusion to the mythology of "going
to pieces" over a concerto). The book was marketed as "an
enriching, inspiring tale of the triumph of love over adversity,"
and its advertising copy celebrates the connection between the
concerto struggle and spousal support: "When David achieves
his dream of once again performing Rakhmaninovs Third Concerto
in 1995, it is a moment of overwhelming personal affirmation,
and the culmination of Gillians unswerving belief in his
brilliance" (from the cover). As a result of this romantic
relationship, David Helfgott is able to conquer the concertoa
breakthrough instead of a breakdownand restore the relationship
of the "concerto sound-bodies" now healed and potent:
"This monumental work, considered by many concert pianists
as the most difficult of all piano concertos, seemed to pour out
from his soul. He was surrendering to the music. The keys appeared
to be an extension of his self, as the man, the music and the
piano became one.122"
one"technically and musically with the concerto, or
physically, psychologically, and romantically through the
concertois the basic plot of the melodramatic "concerto
film." But the numerous recapitulations of this theme have
also inspired a fair share of parodic treatments, as well.123
In his classic spoof of the concerto-ritual and the solipsistic
identification of concerto, instrument, and self, Oscar Levant
daydreams about a performance of Gershwins Concerto in F
in An American in Paris124
(1951). Here the soloist-protagonist takes on the roles of all
concerto agents involved in the performance: not only the virtuoso
pianist, but the conductor, string section, percussion section,
and even audience members shouting "Bravo!" It is a
struggle whose ultimate victory is guaranteed, since all forces
are simply the megalomaniacal hero himselfbut this masturbatory
dream does not get Levants character anywhere in terms of
- That conquest
is achieved by Gene Kelly, Levants co-star in An American
in Paris, who further plays up the role of romantic "concerto
agent" in a classic homage to Hollywood musicals and composer
films, Les demoiselles de Rochefort/The Young Girls of Rochefort125
(1967) by French director Jacques Demy. Here Kelly plays pianist
Andrew Miller, an American in Rochefort who happens to meet the
woman of his dreams one day on the street, but cannot find her
again. Solange Garnier, his love interest, is a pianist who teaches
"solfège et lart de larpège"
in the provincical town and composes her own piano concerto (Michel
Legrands "Theme du Concerto"). A page of her score
falls into Andys possession, and he soon begins to sing
it, appropriating its melody to his own lyrics as an expression
of his desire for this elusive woman:
mi, fa, la, sol, sol, Où sont les jolies mains qui tracèrent
of course, Solange is seeking the missing page of her unfinished
concerto. The two lovers finally find each other in the towns
music shop, where Andy is at a white grand piano playing Solanges
concerto, now "his" as well. Reunited, the pair consummate
their relationship in a stylized dance to the swelling strains
of the restored concerto.
Mi, ré, mi, si, mi, mi, Il me faut sans tarder leur passer
in Brief Encounter may have provided Billy Wilder the
plot inspiration for his film The Apartment (about a
man who loans his flat out to amorous couples desiring a discreet
rendezvous), but it definitely inspired the quintessential spoof
of the soundtrack concerto as melodramatic masculine conquest,
in Wilders The Seven Year Itch127
(1955). When Richard Shermans wife and young son go out
of town for a few weeks in the summer, temptation arises in
the form of a charming and voluptuous upstairs neighbor (Marilyn
Monroe). Richard struggles with his passions and his morals,
while fantasizing that he possesses "a kind of animal thing"
that attracts women. He even holds imaginary discussions with
his wife over the appropriateness of these affairs: "This
is not a thing that one likes to discuss with ones wife,
but you might as well know that women have been throwing themselves
at me for years" (an echo of Lauras hesitance to
confess everything to her husband in Brief Encounter).
François Truffaut notes that The Seven Year Itch
is full of irreverent homages to classic films by other directors,
the film Wilder constantly refers to, so that each scene becomes
a vengeful slap, is David Leans Brief Encounter,
with its streams of tears and its amorously awkward couplethe
least sensual and most sentimental film ever wept over. Some
people even weep thinking about itinexhaustible tears
from English crocodiles. "Rachmaninoff! His second concerto
for piano and orchestra never loses its effect," Tom
Ewell declares, just because hes seen Brief Encounter
and he has figured out that Rachmaninoff is infallible in
affairs of the heart and body.128
is heard in "stereophonic sound" not only on the soundtrack,
but in Richards (as in Lauras) interior fantasies
of romantic conquest. Richard imagines seduction scenarios involving
his secretary Miss Morris ("deeply, madly, desperately,
all-consumingly" in love with him), his night nurse ("poor
Miss Finchshe fought it as long as she could"), and
Elaine, his wifes best friend and bridesmaid. The concertos
"love theme" accompanies their beach seduction scene
amid the crashing waves, a spoof of From Here to Eternity
(1953) as well as Brief Encounter.129
In the highly-camped
seduction scene, the would-be virtuoso pictures himself performing
Rachmaninoffs Second Concerto on the living room piano.
In his imagination, his alluring upstairs neighbor descends,
wearing a very low-cut "ice-cold gown," and proclaims
breathlessly about the music, "Every time I hear it I go
to pieces!"precisely the reaction of all the other
women in films (and film audiences) who swoon and "fall
apart" to the power of this concerto. In dialogue that
plays up the compositional relationship of "concerto agents"
for comic effect, Monroes character insists "Dont
stop! Dont stop! Dont ever stop!" just as the
solo part comes to a brief rest (at m. 75) while the orchestra
did you stop?" (she asks, crestfallen)
"You know why I stopped!"
"Because now Im going to take you in my arms and
kiss you. Very quickly, and very hard."
passionate embrace results in the piano bench tipping backwards
and crashing underneath them, another moment of "collapse"
in performance. The piano concerto remains a daunting affair.
of California, San Diego
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Directed by Scott Hicks, starring Geoffrey Rush (David Helfgott)
and Lynn Redgrave (Gillian), also Sonia Todd (Sylvia), Googie
Withers (Katharine Susannah Prichard), Beverley Dunn (Beryl Alcott),
Nicholas Bell (Ben Rosen), and John Gielgud (Professor Cecil Parkes).
One of Gillian Helfgotts descriptions of Davids condition
recalls the image of Karen Duncan trapped in the Swiss sanatorium
in The Other Love: "Imagine him locked up in an institution
for twelve years. Sometimes they wouldnt even let him play
the piano. He suffered from severe loneliness with no one to even
care about him." Interview with Gillian Helfgott, Sydney
Telegraph (May 30, 1986). Like Karen Duncan, David in Shine
knows he must not play anymore: "The doctor says it might
Other male leadership figures in the storyBen Rosen,
Davids gay piano teacher in Australia, and Cecil Parkes,
his one-armed professor of piano in Londonare presented
as similarly supportive, but emasculated, figures.
U.S. News and World Report 121/22 (December 2, 1996):
Later, in the scene of Davids return to solo performing
near the conclusion of the film, the second theme of the concertos
first movementthe calm, flowing melody in majoris
used as a kind of "reconciliation" theme to represent
a restored protagonist at peace with the surrounding social order
and within himself.
Shine: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Polygram,
1996), and David Helfgott Plays Rachmaninov Piano Concerto
no. 3 (RCA Victor, 1997), with David Helfgott, piano; Milan
Horvat, conductor; Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra. The success
of the film prompted some controversy over the ethics of promoting
a mentally unstable pianist as an international concert soloist,
and over the basis of the purportedly true biographical story
itself. Margaret Helfgott, Davids older sister, published
an account of her brothers life that addresses the "myth
of Shine" and overturns many of the dramatic characterizations
which the film presents as factual. Margaret Helfgott, with Tom
Gross, Out of Tune: David Helfgott and the Myth of Shine
(New York: Warner Books, 1998). See also the "Symposium"
on David Helfgott and Shine in Philosophy and Literature
21/2 (October 1997): 332-391. Kevin Bazzana, in his essay "Hot
with Chutzpah" in that collection, asserts that "the
best that can be said of Helfgotts Rach 3 is the best that
can be said of most of his performances: he gets by, he gets through
to the end without total collapse. But he never commands the music"
Gillian Helfgott, with Alissa Tanskaya, Love You to Bits
and Pieces: Life with David Helfgott (New York: Penguin Books,
1996). See also her article "Hes Playing Our
Song," Ladies Home Journal 114/5 (May 1, 1997):
A prime musical example is Franz Reizensteins "Concerto
Popolare (The Concerto to End All Concertos)," which premiered
at the Hoffnung Music Festival Concert of 1956, and is included
in the collection Hoffnungs Music Festivals (EMI).
This 11-minute "thematic traffic-jam" begins as a confrontation
between the Chaikovsky First Concerto and the Grieg Concerto (the
orchestra begins with one, the pianist insists on playing the
other), and soon degenerates into an absurd mixture of Rachmaninoffs
Second, Beethovens Fourth, the "Rhapsody in Blue,"
and the "Warsaw Concerto," along with persistent interjections
of "Pop Goes the Weasel" and "Roll Out the Barrel."
Directed by Vincente Minnelli, with Gene Kelly (Jerry Mulligan)
and Oscar Levant (Adam Cooke). Levant also plays the Concerto
in F "straight" in the George Gershwin biographical
film Rhapsody in Blue (1945) and in You Were Meant for
Starring Catherine Deneuve (Delphine Garnier), Françoise
Dorléac (Solange Garnier), and Gene Kelly (Andrew Miller).
"Where are the pretty hands which traced these notes?
Without delay I must release them from their shackles!"
Starring Tom Ewell (Richard Sherman) and Marilyn Monroe.
François Truffaut, The Films of My Life, trans.
Leonard Mayhew (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978): 160.
Elaine: "What is this strange animal thing you have?
It bothers me, its bothered me since the first time I saw
you, and itll bother me always, from here to eternity!"
Richard struggles against her smothering kisses and embraces:
"You must fight it, Elaine. You must be strong. You must
remember I belong to another. This can never be! As you know but
too well, I have a wonderful, devoted, trusting wife at home,
and a tow-headed freckle-faced little space cadet!"
His protests echo Lauras own debate over infidelity as the
Rachmaninoff concerto plays in Brief Encounter: "You
see, were a happily married couple, and I must never forget
that. This is my home, you are my husband, and my children are
upstairs in bed. Im a happily married woman."
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