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Avoiding Cliche, 'Shine' Finds High Drama in Music

An Australian film tells the true story of a pianist's rocky career

For most moviegoers, film music is just a series of "unheard melodies," in the words of one critic. But now and then a movie puts music in the foreground, making the audience aware of it as a living part of the story.

Such a film is "Shine," made in Australia and already earning praise from international audiences. Part of its appeal is its basis on a real-life story, charged with human interest and moments of high drama.

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Adding to the movie's specifically musical impact is the fact that its real-life main character, David Helfgott, plays the sparkling piano passages we hear on the soundtrack as we watch the stirring, sometimes-harrowing tale of his troubled but ultimately successful career.

"Shine" begins in Australia about 15 years ago, with the disconcerting sight of a middle-age man getting lost in a rainstorm, stumbling into a saloon, and holding an incoherent conversation with himself and anyone else who'll listen.

Wanting to help this odd new acquaintance, who turns out to be a talented pianist, the bar's proprietor offers him a job as resident musician. Delighted to be back at the piano - he hasn't played for more than 10 years, we soon discover - he starts remembering the wildly varied experiences that led to his present condition in life.

This begins a string of flashbacks to Helfgott's past adventures, many of which are dominated by his father, a Polish emigrant who saw the Holocaust destroy his family.

Now obsessed with "family values" to the point of mania, he helps young David develop musical skills but forbids any activity that might take the boy away from home.

Caught between his father's morbid fears and his own excited dreams, David grows into a brilliant but troubled adolescent. Prompted by an elderly woman who takes an interest in his talent, he finally defies his father and accepts a scholarship to an English conservatory.

At first he prospers there, but combined pressures - his father's animosity, his teacher's obliviousness to his mental problems, the death of his old mentor back home - lead to a catastrophic emotional breakdown. Returning to Australia, he sinks into a sad parody of normal existence, but he slowly finds the love and support he needs to resume a meaningful life.

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Fans of conventional movies about music, including the recent hit "Mr. Holland's Opus," often encounter the clich that pleasant melodies and harmonies never fail to produce a happy ending in time for the final fade-out. Perhaps because it deals with real experiences, "Shine" is smarter and more skeptical about these allegedly magical powers.

To be sure, music plays a key role in Helfgott's recovery from the brink of disaster, and without it his life would surely be less fulfilling.

Yet he remains a peculiar and eccentric figure to the end, and as the movie sees it, challenges related to his musical talent were partly responsible for starting him on the road to his difficult condition.

"Shine" would be more informative in this area if it better articulated how much David's difficulties stem from his father's oppressiveness, how much they're generated by the demands of his musical gift, and how many mental quirks he may have had from other circumstances.

The movie is often riveting despite its shortcomings, however, offering the most three-dimensional study of artistic intelligence since "Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould," a recent Canadian film about a similar figure.

Geoffrey Rush and Noah Taylor are utterly convincing in the role of Helfgott as an adult and a teenager, respectively. Also excellent are Armin Mueller-Stahl as his father, John Gielgud as his teacher, Googie Withers as his mentor, and Lynn Redgrave as the woman who eventually brings romance into his life.

Scott Hicks has directed the drama in an over-the-top style that recalls Baz Luhrmann's zany "Strictly Ballroom," another Australian treat with a musical subject.

The picture's unofficial theme song is the Third Piano Concerto by Sergei Rachmaninoff, which brings its own touch of inspired hysteria to the production. Look for CD sales of the "Rach 3" to skyrocket.

*'Shine' has a PG-13 rating. It contains foul language, domestic violence, and some sexual activity.

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