1. The mythologized tropes of romantic struggle surrounding the soundtrack concerto—confrontation resolved through reconciliation or renunciation, affliction overcome through loving relationship—have prompted multiple retellings in films over the decades. A recent example is Shine115 (1996), purportedly the "true story" of pianist David Helfgott’s early career, his struggle against mental illness, and his redemption through the nurturing woman who "saves" him and eventually marries him.116

  2. As a further narrative about confrontation with the patriarchal social order, Shine fits Nowell-Smith’s assertion that "the Hollywood melodrama is also fundamentally concerned with the child’s 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 David’s 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 woman’s film, for Gillian can be regarded as the ultimate heroine of David’s concerto-struggle.

  3. The composition used to signify David’s struggle in Shine is Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto in D minor, op. 30. Part of the film’s 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. "It’s a piece for elephants, elephantine!" David chatters. His piano teacher warns David’s demanding father, "Whatever you do, don’t you inflict bloody Rachmaninoff on him! He’s 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, David—it’s dangerous. You will get hurt!"

  4. To complete the melodramatic mythology around the soundtrack concerto, an element of psychosomatic affliction is central to the plot and to the characterization of David:
    (Professor) "No one’s ever mad enough to attempt the Rach Three!"
    (David) "Am I—mad enough, Professor? Am I?"
    Indeed, the psychologically disturbed soloist is no match for this intransigent concerto. As he crouches over the keyboard, sweat pouring from his face, David’s 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. David’s confrontation with the patriarchal social order (represented by the father, professor, composer, conductor, orchestra) has rendered him senseless and broken. Indeed, Shine’s "moral" as spoken by David, is that "It’s a life-long struggle to survive undamaged … A struggle to keep your head above water and not get it chopped off."119

  5. In 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 film’s story also prompted magazine articles and a book of memoirs by his wife, Gillian Helfgott, Love You to Bits and Pieces121 (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 Rakhmaninov’s Third Concerto in 1995, it is a moment of overwhelming personal affirmation, and the culmination of Gillian’s unswerving belief in his brilliance" (from the cover). As a result of this romantic relationship, David Helfgott is able to conquer the concerto—a breakthrough instead of a breakdown—and 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"

  6. "Becoming one"—technically and musically with the concerto, or physically, psychologically, and romantically through the concerto—is 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 Gershwin’s 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 himself—but this masturbatory dream does not get Levant’s character anywhere in terms of romantic relationship.

  7. That conquest is achieved by Gene Kelly, Levant’s 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 l’art de l’arpège" in the provincical town and composes her own piano concerto (Michel Legrand’s "Theme du Concerto"). A page of her score falls into Andy’s 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:
    Sol, mi, fa, la, sol, sol, Où sont les jolies mains qui tracèrent ces notes?
    Mi, ré, mi, si, mi, mi, Il me faut sans tarder leur passer des menottes!126
    Meanwhile, of course, Solange is seeking the missing page of her unfinished concerto. The two lovers finally find each other in the town’s music shop, where Andy is at a white grand piano playing Solange’s concerto, now "his" as well. Reunited, the pair consummate their relationship in a stylized dance to the swelling strains of the restored concerto.

  8. A scene 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 Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch127 (1955). When Richard Sherman’s 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 one’s wife, but you might as well know that women have been throwing themselves at me for years" (an echo of Laura’s 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,

    but the film Wilder constantly refers to, so that each scene becomes a vengeful slap, is David Lean’s Brief Encounter, with its streams of tears and its amorously awkward couple—the least sensual and most sentimental film ever wept over. Some people even weep thinking about it—inexhaustible tears from English crocodiles. "Rachmaninoff! His second concerto for piano and orchestra never loses its effect," Tom Ewell declares, just because he’s seen Brief Encounter and he has figured out that Rachmaninoff is infallible in affairs of the heart and body.128

    The concerto is heard in "stereophonic sound" not only on the soundtrack, but in Richard’s (as in Laura’s) 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 Finch—she fought it as long as she could"), and Elaine, his wife’s best friend and bridesmaid. The concerto’s "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

  9. In the highly-camped seduction scene, the would-be virtuoso pictures himself performing Rachmaninoff’s 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, Monroe’s character insists "Don’t stop! Don’t stop! Don’t ever stop!" just as the solo part comes to a brief rest (at m. 75) while the orchestra continues playing:

    "Why did you stop?" (she asks, crestfallen)
    "You know why I stopped!"
    "Because now I’m going to take you in my arms and kiss you. Very quickly, and very hard."

    But Richard’s 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.

    Ivan Raykoff
    University of California, San Diego

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151. 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).

116. One of Gillian Helfgott’s descriptions of David’s 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 wouldn’t 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 damage me."

117. Other male leadership figures in the story—Ben Rosen, David’s gay piano teacher in Australia, and Cecil Parkes, his one-armed professor of piano in London—are presented as similarly supportive, but emasculated, figures.

118. U.S. News and World Report 121/22 (December 2, 1996): 78.

119. Later, in the scene of David’s return to solo performing near the conclusion of the film, the second theme of the concerto’s first movement—the calm, flowing melody in major—is used as a kind of "reconciliation" theme to represent a restored protagonist at peace with the surrounding social order and within himself.

120. 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, David’s older sister, published an account of her brother’s 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 Helfgott’s 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" (384-85).

121. Gillian Helfgott, with Alissa Tanskaya, Love You to Bits and Pieces: Life with David Helfgott (New York: Penguin Books, 1996). See also her article "He’s Playing Our Song," Ladies’ Home Journal 114/5 (May 1, 1997): 24-27.

122. Ibid, 8.

123. A prime musical example is Franz Reizenstein’s "Concerto Popolare (The Concerto to End All Concertos)," which premiered at the Hoffnung Music Festival Concert of 1956, and is included in the collection Hoffnung’s 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 Rachmaninoff’s Second, Beethoven’s Fourth, the "Rhapsody in Blue," and the "Warsaw Concerto," along with persistent interjections of "Pop Goes the Weasel" and "Roll Out the Barrel."

124. 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 Me (1947).

125. Starring Catherine Deneuve (Delphine Garnier), Françoise Dorléac (Solange Garnier), and Gene Kelly (Andrew Miller).

126. "Where are the pretty hands which traced these notes? Without delay I must release them from their shackles!"

127. Starring Tom Ewell (Richard Sherman) and Marilyn Monroe.

128. François Truffaut, The Films of My Life, trans. Leonard Mayhew (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978): 160.

129. Elaine: "What is this strange animal thing you have? It bothers me, it’s bothered me since the first time I saw you, and it’ll 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 Laura’s own debate over infidelity as the Rachmaninoff concerto plays in Brief Encounter: "You see, we’re 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. I’m a happily married woman."

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