Australian cinema rarely embraces the bold, hyperbolic flourish of full-blown melodrama; our family melodramas tend to remain grounded in a realist aesthetic (1). As one of the most successful films of the 1990s (2), Shine remains a potent exception to this tendency.
The performance of Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto is exemplary of the film’s embrace of melodramatic style to convey the psychological collapse of its protagonist, the prodigious and eccentric David Helfgott (played here by Noah Taylor). Following Jan Sardi’s detailed script directions (3), director Scott Hicks employs close-ups, slow-motion and point of view shots, together with “point of audition” sounds (4), to place the audience “inside” David’s head. This scene is emblematic of the film’s desire to create an empathetic relationship between its mentally ill protagonist and the audience. Through its deployment of melodrama and subjective cinematic devices, Shine invites us to put ourselves “in David’s shoes”.
This scene, one of the longest in the film, is the realisation of David’s promising talent as a concert pianist. The anticipation of his performance is built up by the preceding montage of rehearsals, in a similar manner to the training scenes leading up to the fight in a boxing film. Indeed, Sardisays he consciously drew on Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) in writing the concerto performance scene (5). Like the fight scenes in Scorsese’s film, Shine manipulates sound and image to signal David’s increasing dislocation from reality and to place the audience in the same sensory headspace as the protagonist. In keeping with the idea of musical performance as a physical contest, Sardi wanted to convey the sense that David was “wrestling” with the piano, which he likens to “a beast” (6). Rachmaninov’s concerto is anthropomorphised as an opponent that must be overcome, and this piece of music stands in for David’s father, Peter (Armin Mueller-Stahl), his true opponent.
The film’s audience is aligned with David throughout the performance. Close-ups of David’s hands on the keyboard approximate his point of view looking down at the instrument. The intimacy of this camerawork gives the audience the sense of being seated at the keyboard alongside David.The soundtrack alternates between the “objective” recording of the concerto’s performance (the orchestra and the piano united in their rendition of Rachmaninov’s piece) and the subjective experience of David’s playing, his point of audition. The melodic and passionate strains of the concerto are interrupted by a series of harsh, unmusical sounds, such as wooden piano keys striking muted metal strings, scratching violin bows, heavy breathing and a heartbeat, which convey David’s growing disconnection from the reality of his performance. These sounds create a jarring effect as they interrupt the soaring melody and technical virtuosity of the concerto.
The unsettling intrusion of these point of audition sounds is heightened by the distortion of the image: a slow-motion shot shows David’s hands gliding across the keyboard and beads of perspiration trickling from his long hair. In some shots, while David’s hands appear in slow motion, the soundtrack of his playing continues at normal speed. This separation of image and sound represents the increasing dislocation of David’s mind. As the music becomes more demanding and David’s performance more impressive, the camera is freed from its grounded relationship with the concert stage and moves vertiginously around David, creating a sense of instability and dizziness.
These devices of subjective cinema – the presentation of sound and image from a character’s perspective – somatise David’s deteriorating psychological state, which is also expressed through his body: David’s hands and face are covered with perspiration, and once the performance concludes, he is barely able to stand and acknowledge the rapturous applause before he collapses with a sickening thud on the stage floor. His eyes wide, David stares blankly at the camera, which has mimicked David’s collapse so that it, too, is lying on its side on the floor. A symptomatic gesture, David’s physical collapse conveys his psychological breakdown.
This scene is heavily invested with meaning within Shine’s narrative structure; through his performance, David expresses his desire for reconciliation with his estranged father. Hicks uses the melodramatic device of parallel editing to unite two physically separate spaces in this staging of family conflict: close-ups of David’s face are intercut with shots of Peter at home, listening to the recording of David’s performance. From an establishing shot showing Peter in the lounge room with David’s ribbons and trophies adorning the mantelpiece, the camera tracks in slowly towards Peter’s melancholy, pained face. Connecting the two locations is the concerto’s main theme, which at this moment is played by the piano alone, without orchestral accompaniment. In his psychoanalytic reading of the family melodrama, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith cites music and dancing as moments of expression for what cannot be said (7). In this scene, David’s desire for his father’s love and approval is “spoken” through his performance, while Peter’s desire to be reunited with his estranged son is “spoken” through his tears as he listens to the recording. The plaintive solo piano melody conveys David’s sadness and loss, and his nostalgia for happier times with his father. As his friend Katharine Susannah Prichard (Googie Withers) observed in an earlier scene, David’s piano playing “expresses … the inexpressible”. In Shine, music fulfils this melodramatic function of externalising the characters’ emotions and conveying their desire for reconciliation, which remains unarticulated and unrealised in the rest of the film.
This scene in Shine is one of several in Australian cinema where characters express their repressed desires and frustrations with family conflict through their piano playing. An obvious example is The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993), but David’s performance finds precedent in the impudent, rebellious playing of Sybylla (Judy Davis) in My Brilliant Career(Gillian Armstrong, 1979) and the scene in Jedda (Charles Chauvel, 1955), where the clash of indigenous and European cultures is literally performed through sonic dissonance, culminating in the tortured Jedda (Ngarla Kunoth) hitting the keyboard and violently shaking her head before collapsing in tears. In both Jedda and Shine, melodramatic excess breaks through realist restraint, translating the character’s anguish and anxiety into musical performance and its dissolution.
- Brian McFarlane, “Melodrama, the later years”, in McFarlane, Geoff Mayer and Ina Bertrand (eds), The Oxford Companion to Australian Film, Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 310-312.
- Amongst its many accolades, Shine won nine awards, including Best Film and Best Director, and was nominated for a further three at the Australian Film Institute Awards in 1996; the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards in 1997, with Geoffrey Rush winning Best Actor in a Leading Role.
- Jan Sardi, Shine, the screenplay, Bloomsbury, London, 1997, pp. 86-90.
- Rick Altman defines point of audition sound as sound-based identification with a character. See Rick Altman (ed.), Sound Theory, Sound Practice, Routledge, New York, 1992, p. 64
- Sardi, interview with the author, 3 September 2001.
- Sardi, 2001.
- Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, “Minnelli and Melodrama” , in Bill Nichols (ed.), Movies and Methods – volume II, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1985, p. 194.