Shine (1996) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

A homeless man knocks on the window of a suburban seafood restaurant. Unkempt, foul-smelling, eyes almost always closed when he talks, drenched from the rain, wearing a Colombo trenchcoat and mis-matched deck shoes, he is muttering and babbling in a nearly-incomprehensible idiolect. The kindly restaurant owner has some compassion for him, and doesn't toss him out or call the cops. Turns out to be a good call, because when the apparently drunken bum stumbles to the piano, and is close to testing the limit of the owner's patience, he falls into a pluperfect rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee", and the world stops while everyone listens.

That wonderful cinematic moment is the perfect summation of "Shine", the biographical, mostly true story of child prodigy David Helfgott, his descent into hell and his climb back up to earth.

The filmmakers and Helfgott admit that the story has been enhanced to make it more cinematic, but the core of the yarn is true. Writer/director Sam Hicks wrote, "despite the condensations, compressed chronology and elements of invention, Shine remains true to the emotional journey of David Helfgott's life."

Helfgott was raised by a stifling father who kept him from the normal development of childhood. When David seemed ready to emerge as a recognized genius, the father would not let him accept his musical scholarship in America. (The father was haunted by his own life experiences in the holocaust). Stripped of everything but the piano, then finally stripped of his ability to develop properly in his piano artistry, he retreated into himself, and his father reacted brutally. David ran away to study in England, but his father would no longer acknowledge his presence, and his conciliatory letters always returned unopened. With the help of a fine teacher, played beautifully by Sir John Gielgud, David threw every bit of skill and energy and passion of his being into the recital performance of a Rachmaninoff concerto (Third Piano) of daunting difficulty. He aced it, then collapsed immediately afterwards, into a nervous breakdown from which it would take him years to recover.

His childhood and adolescence are the essence of the first half of the film.

And thus we loop back to the scene in the seafood restaurant.

As an adult, David was faced with great challenges. He had to learn to play the piano again for the love of it, and not because he was being driven by himself or his father or a desire to win competitions. But this was perhaps the smallest of his challenges.

He had to learn to emerge from his hermit's existence in order to live normally among people. He had to come to grips with his memories of his father, and move on with his life. He had to learn to speak without babbling. He even had to learn how NOT to be a child prodigy, because that's still what he was at age 40.

His road back to mental health, and the gradual resumption of his career at a different level, are the focus of the second half of the story.


Geoffrey Rush trampolined naked, back to the camera, and skinny dipped far from the camera.

Noah Taylor (playing a younger Helfgott) walked up a flight of stairs without realizing he had no pants on.

Lynn Redgrave was briefly topless in a sex scene with Rush.

A few miscellaneous strippers danced in the background of one scene.

I can't think of any reason not to rent or buy Shine, unless you just hate classical music, which dominates the story.

This is an exceptionally good movie, featuring an uncanny, sympathetic, and imaginative characterization from Geoffrey Rush as the adult Helfgott. Rush won most of the major acting awards that year, as well he should have.

He is currently featured as the Marquis de Sade in "Quills", the new Phillip Kaufman film co-starring Kate Winslet, which had a limited USA release yesterday (I'm writing this on November 11), but will have the expanded release in two weeks. Here's the review from, and here's the official site for Quills. There is some current buzz that Rush will receive a Best Actor nomination for the DeSade role as well.

OK, enough about Quills. Shine is today's topic.

I can't improve on what Geoffrey Rush said in his acceptance speech for the Golden Globes. The film took a "vulnerable, peculiar, unfamiliar and very human character from the margins of our experience, and placed him so deservedly at the heart of the narrative"

Shine is another one of the many films now held in higher esteem than the Oscar Winner from the same year. Of course, that's a pretty damned long list for films released in 1996. Even Ed Wood might have made it if he had lived long enough, because the winner than year was the frequently disparaged "The English Patient". Patient won the Best Picture Oscar that year, but would not make the top 10 based on the current IMDb ratings. Here's how the 1996 Oscar Race (Feb, 1997) looks today at IMDb.

1997 Oscar Eligibles nominated film? nominated director? IMDb rating
Paradise Lost * No No 8.8
Fargo Yes Yes 8.2
Sling Blade No No 8.1
Secrets and Lies Yes Yes 7.9
Lone Star No No 7.8
Hamlet No No 7.8
Trainspotting No No 7.8
Breaking the Waves No No 7.7
Shine Yes Yes 7.5
Jerry Maguire Yes No 7.3
Primal Fear No No 7.3
People vs Larry Flynt No Yes 7.2
Angels and Insects No No 7.1
The Rock No No 7.1
The English Patient Yes (won) Yes (won) 7.1

DVD info from Amazon.

The DVD is a bit disappointing.

  • The video transfer of the film is excellent, and the sound is also great. 1.85:1 widescreen anamorphic, enhanced for 16x9 screeens.

  • But there's nothing else except a trailer, a written Q&A with the director, and an acceptance speech. I just wanted so much more info, especially to see a bit of the real Helfgott.

* Paradise Lost, the highest rated film on the list, was not eligible for an Oscar, but won an Emmy. I have not seen it. I want to, but I don't know where to obtain a copy.

If the eligible Oscar nominees were recalculated based on these ratings, the Big Kahunas would be Sling Blade, Secrets and Lies, and Fargo. Sling Blade was not nominated that year, but is now battling for the #1 spot. Shine would be edged off the nominees list, as would Patient and Jerry Maguire.

Here are some links about the real David Helfgott:

Interview in The Sunday Age

Some expert reviews of Helfgott's post-Shine tour. He didn't impress the experts, and is apparently far more eccentric even than portrayed by Rush, often mumbling and humming along with his playing.

A layman's review of his L.A. concert, by Army Archerd. Archerd found it an exhilarating experience. His official site. Includes his e-mail address, biography, photogallery, tour schedule, etc.

The Critics Vote ...

  • General consensus: Four stars. Ebert 4/4, Berardinelli 4/4 (re gives fewer than ten perfect scores per year), Maltin 3.5/4, Apollo 87/100.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.5/10, just missing the Top 250, and higher than that year's Oscar winner. Apollo users are even more enthusiastic, rating it 85/100.
  • With their dollars ... A very profitable film. Made $35 million domestic gross, $53 million overseas, and has taken in $18 million in rentals. Cost only $5.5 million to make.

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