This is David Helfgott, the Australian pianist whose extraordinary story of rehabilitation after years of mental illness is told in Shine, the film directed by Scott Hicks which has become a box-office hit. When I met Helfgott in Sydney this week, he was in the throes of recording his second CD. His first, which topped last year's classical charts in Australia, is a recording of Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto, the notoriously difficult piece which stands as a symbol for Helfgott's tortured path from tragedy and obscurity to the brink of international celebrity.
I had been warned that meeting Helfgott was no ordinary experience and that to interview him, in a conventional sense, was impossible. But I was unprepared for the dichotomy between the musical genius and the man walking around the room muttering to himself, with an obsession to hug and kiss everyone who came into his path. Sitting in their flat between recording sessions, bringing order to everything, was Gillian Helfgott, the astrologer who, at 65, is 15 years her husband's senior. "David," she said, gently prising him from my shoulders. "What about if you go and make the bed and tidy things up, treasure?"
Her handling of her husband's child-like, erratic behaviour with such parental admonitions belies a much deeper relationship between the couple, one that Shine depicts as crucial to Helfgott's return from his lost years of mental anguish. The film's success has also been the catalyst for a forthcoming recital tour of Europe and America. It will be Helfgott's visit to Britain and America where some of the biggest demons from his past will be confronted.
For those that haven't yet seen the film, Helfgott's parents were Jewish refugees from Poland who settled in Perth, where Helfgott was born in 1947. Peter Helfgott, David's father, lavished attention on his child prodigy who was playing Chopin and Liszt at the age of 10. When Isaac Stern visited Perth and offered David, then 14, the chance to study in America, his father refused to let him go. Five years later, David won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London and left, provoking an irreparable rift with his father.
The pinnacle of David's four years in London was his performance of Rachmaninov's Third at the college in 1969. During his London years, his mental health deteriorated alarmingly. The glittering international career that his instructor had hoped for never happened. At 23, Helfgott fled back to Australia in a mental and emotional vacuum, suffered a series of breakdowns and spent the Seventies and early Eighties almost forgotten in institutions.
Then Chris Reynolds, a Perth doctor who co-owned a wine bar called Riccardo's, asked Helfgott to play there. It was the start of a slow recovery of his musical confidence. And it was through Reynolds that Helfgott met Gillian in 1983.
Helfgott seemed an unlikely partner for this controlled, measured, articulate woman who has never smoked or drunk tea or coffee. He smoked 125 cigarettes and drank 25 cups of heavily sweetened coffee a day. He was hyperactive from his addictions, and spoke even more chaotically than he does now. "When I met him, David was a highly agitated man desperately wanting approval and acceptance from everyone," Gillian told me. "He was very much searching for his identity again."
Helfgott proposed to her within 24 hours of their meeting. In the film, she returns home to Sydney, consults his astrological chart then, in a symbolic commitment to change her life, takes off her engagement ring to another man. In fact she was not engaged, but she did consult the charts. What did the horoscope tell her?
"I knew within myself that I was going to stay with him. The astrology was more like a road map. I could see that we could make a good combination. David is Taurus and I'm Sagittarius. He had his Venus and Mars in the last degree of Aries and I had my Mars in the last degree of Sagittarius, which makes what we call a trine aspect, a harmonious aspect. Mars is the planet of energy and of sexual energy. Many musicians have Mars and Venus together because Venus is the planet of beauty and harmony. My aspects had been showing that someone was going to come into my life, and there he was. Not as I had visualised, but there really wasn't any option."
Helfgott was becoming restless for his morning swim, an exercise he undertakes rigorously to help calm his hyperactivity. So we moved outside to the swimming pool, where the caretaker instantly received the Helfgott treatment of hugs, words and a laugh that sounds more like a yell. As Helfgott swam, I asked Gillian the question that anyone who has met her husband wants to know: How do you explain his mental condition?
The film offers the indelible explanation that it was Helfgott's destructive relationship with his dictatorial and sometimes violent father that tipped him over the edge. Gillian Helfgott herself builds on this theory in her book about their life together, Love You to Bits and Pieces, which has had three reprints in Australia since its publication there last month.
Others believe that there is more to it than that. Chris Reynolds has said: "I don't think even a conference of psychiatrists would agree on David's condition. He remains a mystery, and I don't think there is much point in putting a label on it." Gillian agrees. "I don't think he's classifiable," she says. "He is a vulnerable person and there is a slight chemical imbalance in his brain that speeds up his thought processes. But David is not schizophrenic, and never has been. And he's certainly never suffered from depression." She points to Helfgott standing in the pool rambling to the gardener, now, who is kneeling beside him. "Does that look like a depressed character?"
Shine has already won awards in Australia and America, but some key people from Helfgott's past are not impressed by the film.
Chris Reynolds, the doctor who brought Helfgott in from the cold and started him on the path back to the recital stage, has fallen out with the Helfgotts over Shine. In the film, Reynolds's character is transformed into that of Sylvia, the bar owner who introduces Helfgott to Gillian. According to Reynolds, he was written out of the story by Scott Hicks and Gillian, who struck a deal without his involvement. Even more jarring has been the response of Helfgott's eldest sister, Margaret, who now lives in Israel. She has written to Australian newspapers denouncing as a "travesty" the film's presentation of Peter Helfgott as a tyrant when in fact, she claims, he was "the man behind David's genius".
What did David think of his sister's reaction? "He just said, 'Poor Margaret, we should feel sorry for her'," says Gillian. "She does not have the right to denigrate David's experiences and deny the validity of the suffering that he had with his father. Scott Hicks made the film with dignity and integrity. I couldn't think more highly of the man."
Gillian's courage in taking on a person who most people would have steered around cannot be underplayed in Helfgott's rehabilitation. He has stopped smoking and his coffee consumption is under control. They live in an idyllic valley of New South Wales where the cold, harsh surroundings of the institutions that Helfgott once inhabited have been replaced by trees, flowers, mountains and a creek called Never Never.
But it is the music, more than anything, that has sustained Helfgott through his years of hell and brought him to a new life. Difficult as it is to have a normal conversation with Helfgott, I asked him what the piano meant to him. And his rapid-fire reply showed that he did not take his triumph for granted. "Everything," he said. "Anything and everything. Here, there and everywhere. I get the finest pianos in the world and the best audiences in the world. That's very privileged, very privileged. Playing the piano is a huge privilege. I'm a very lucky man."
The Shine Tour - David Helfgott Live begins on 5 May at the Royal Festival Hall, London. Phone 0990 274444 for tour detailsReuse content