The Piano Man

NOTHING QUITE PREPARES you for meeting David Helfgott face to face--not even actor Geoffrey Rush's uncannily accurate portrayal in the film "Shine." Helfgott is the Australian boy piano prodigy, devolved to a shuffling mental patient, now resurrected as a freakishly inspirational concert performer. He's also a hugger--and he's going to hug you. When he detaches to hug the next person he sees, he'll keep gripping your hand. All the while he'll be chattering: a stream of free-associative hyper-speed commentary and self-addressed peptalk. It's hard to make it out unless his mouth is right at your ear-which is where he likes it. With Helfgott, there are no boundaries: he can never get you close enough. His lips touch your cheek, his forehead bumps your forehead and he's still talking, as he was before you showed up, as he will be after you've gone. "It's awesome it's awesome it's awesome," he's saying. "Keep smiling keep smiling you gotta keep smiling. Image image image image image."

Helfgott, 49, and his wife, Gillian, 65, are in the first-class lounge at the Auckland, New Zealand, airport, about to fly to America. He would have made this trip more than 30 years ago, to study under the supposed sponsorship of Isaac Stern, had his father not thrown a fit and forbidden him to go. (Stern's office says he can't recall meeting Helfgott.) Whether or not David's father gave him the beating dramatized in "Shine"-director Scott Hicks trusts David's recollection; one sister sharply disagrees-no one doubts the aborted trip hurt young Helfgott profoundly. So the series of American concerts he begins this week in Boston has a weight and significance for him beyond the sold-out halls, the tacky merchandising-"Get a Helfgott Rise & Shine mug FREE with purchase while supplies last"--and the media group-grope awaiting his arrival.

Or at least people assume this is a big deal to Helfgott; it's hard to tell. His psychiatrist says the closest diagnostic label for whatever has him stuck in this perpetual warp-speed dialogue with himself is "schizoaffective disorder"; he's not autistic, not schizophrenic and may be manic only in the colloquial rather than the clinical sense. His meds are calibrated to keep him zippy enough to play but not so zippy he's bouncing off the walls. His thoughts and feelings seem as hard to read as they would be if he weren't constantly verbalizing them; but you get flashes of dry wit, surprising bits of information and sudden lucid moments. Here in the lounge, Helfgott's still hugging everyone within reach: whatever he is, he's not depressed. "Be aware be aware," he says. "You gotta be grateful, gotta be grateful. Image image image image image. Do you come to New York a lot? It's awesome, it's awesome. Say it. It's awesome. Say it. It's awesome." What image? Do you mean onstage? "Yes, onstage. Color-coordinated." He points to his green silk shirt. "Gotta keep smiling. Image image. That's the only cure that's the only cure. Are you going straight through to New York?" Yes, the reporter says. "Oh, you're brave you're brave. You gotta be brave."

Gillian Helfgott intervenes. "David, sit down and just let people alone." Helfgott sits. Gillian, once an astrologer and "esoteric lecturer" who worked the cruise ships, may have her days when she's as gamely luminous as Lynn Redgrave, who plays her in "Shine," but today isn't one of them. She looks pale and harried next to her tanned, fit husband with his blissed-out, squint-eyed smile. She often speaks to him as if he were a 3-year-old. After an hour with Helfgott, so would you; she's been married to him for 15 years. Yet sometimes she'll greet him like Bacall greeting Bogie. "Hello, you gorgeous creature! Darling, you've just been wonderful." Some people who knew Helfgott before Gillian say he's deteriorated under her care; the Rev. Robert Fairman, who looked after him in a halfway house from 1977 to 1983, says he never used to go around babbling. (Fairman got creeped out at the wedding when Gillian, he says, called out "It's toilet time!" and led her new husband off by the hand.) Gillian, in turn, says when she met David you couldn't have any kind of conversation with him. And even Gillian's famously antagonistic former friend Dr. Chris Reynolds, the early Helfgott rescuer who introduced them, gives her grudging credit. "She's stuck with him for all these years," he says. "No one else offered to do that."

Gillian tells the reporter she's bought David a new pair of gloves, and wonders how cold it's going to be in New York; it's high summer on their small wooded property in New South Wales, with its mountain views and the outdoor pool in which Helfgott swims four hours a day to keep his energy and anxiety levels down to somewhere near manageable. She looks across the lounge and sees him squirming again. "Darling, look at this orange juice," she says. "I'm grateful I'm grateful," he says. "If you give me something to read I'll be grateful. I gotta read. We'll be fine, we're all gonna be fine, we're gonna be fine."

So you've just met classical music's newest superstar. The "Shine" soundtrack tops Billboard's Classical Crossover (read schlock) chart; Helfgott's recording of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto is the top Classical album. (This is the notorious "Rach 3," which the film touts-- justifiably--as the Everest of planism.) His world tour, which began Feb. 16, has 58 concerts; tickets for these recitals (one program is called "The Celebration of Life," the other "The Miracle of Love") sold out in a day in New York; in L.A. they went in three hours; in San Francisco, two. Gillian's book about life with David, "Love You to Bits and Pieces," has more than 100,000 copies in print, and she plans bookstore gigs in each concert market. CBS's "48 Hours" spent time filming and hanging out at Helfgott's home; that piece airs this Thursday, and God knows what the rest of the media's cooking up. Then there are the rumors nobody's dumb enough to deny outright. Will he really perform at the Academy Awards? Has he really been invited to the White House? (Hey, there's one foreign national they won't put the bite on.) Image image image.

David Helfgott's arrival is either terrific news--a plucky little indie film tells his uplifting personal story, creates a new audience for serious music and gets seven Oscar nominations into the bargain-or a dreary new cultural low-water mark. What's the problem? Well, as David Dubal of the Juilliard piano faculty puts it, "Mr. Helfgott is a dreadful pianist." Critics in Australia and New Zealand panned the first performances on his tour, and while his Rachmaninoff CD is more listenable than his live recitals, it's still muddy, noisy, raggedy--and boring. "Why would I critique him?" one big-name critic told NEWSWEEK after hearing the disc. "It would be like hitting a baby."

But most critics can't beg off. American newspapers have already savaged the CD, and the tour's publicists are making a desperate effort at spin control. "We prefer that classical-music critics not cover the concerts," said one flack, perhaps too frankly, "unless we can talk to them and explain that this isn't the usual classical-music event. It's about a survivor who fights his way back to performing. I mean, Mr. Helfgott could have been a great pianist at one time-who knows?"

Just in ease the publicists do manage to keep the critics out, here's what a Helfgott concert is like. He runs grinning out on-stage--and he really does run-to uproarious applause, then bows bobbing back and forth. Unlike Geoffrey Rush in "Shine," the real Helfgott hums, sings, moans and mumbles along with his playing, sometimes drowning out the thin, shallow tone he gets out of the piano. He loses concentration. He forgets to pause where he should, to give a phrase needed weight, to temper the volume in soft passages; in loud ones, he bangs away like Schroeder at his toy piano. These aren't problems of interpretation, or even of technique, but problems of coherence. No story line or dramatic purpose shapes and holds together his pieces-or even his phrases.

Though he does achieve moments of surprising delicacy and understanding, Helfgott favors pyrotechnic crowd-pleasers--Liszt's "La Campanella" and Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6, Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee"--that are beyond his ability. He's fast-fingered, but hits scads of wrong notes and skims over others; he's obviously leery of leaps, and has to slow down to nail them. And finally--a major no-no-he'll pound out his final cadence, then lift his hands with a flourish and let the pedal, not the fingers, sustain the chord, as if he can't wait to spring up and savor the ovation. From the moment he rims out onstage, you know Helfgott's desperately trying to please you. You want to like him, but the closer you listen, the harder it is to oblige. "All my students are unhappy about this guy," says Dubal. "While they're killing themselves, struggling to get one recital, 3,000 people are going out to see some poor guy fall apart onstage."

It's not just outsiders who find it all disturbing. Sir Frank Callaway, Helfgott's childhood mentor, says, "Personally, I don't think he's playing as well as he did. Gillian, of course, says he's playing better than ever. David's become sort of a circus act. My wife and I went to a recital, but we left." Even Helfgott's current piano coach, Mikhail Solovej, a Russian-born teacher now living in Australia, admits that "if you judge his playing purely professionally, we easily can find a lot of problems. But we can still hear his soul. David is absolutely sincere--he is sometimes like an angel. So maybe people can feel it. I don't think they applaud to David as a pianist, like 100 percent. I think it's mostly an admiration of the person." In Auckland, Helfgott's fans admit it. "People aren't expecting a brilliant pianist, you know," says Fred Mayall, a $2-year-old doctor attending his first piano recital. "They've seen the film and they know he's had a hard life." At this concert, Helfgott hits an egregious clunker at a climactic moment in the Hungarian Rhapsody, stops dead, says "Oh!" and the house tipples with sympathetic laughter. But even he seems to know he's got problems: among his obsessive refrains, you'll sometimes hear "Piano playing's got to improve, it's got to improve."

"Shine" director Scott Hicks seems to regard Helfgott as a beautiful ruin, "a man who lost his career through no fault of his own. He's come out of that a damaged person, but alive, in love, playing music, reaching people, without conforming to what everybody's view of a concert pianist should be. He's recapturing fragments of his lost career, and of course he can't step onto the platform and be a new Horowitz or whatever." But just how promising was Helfgott? The 1966-1968 reports from his Royal College of Music teacher (played by Sir John Gielgud in "Shine") do compare him to Horowitz even while lamenting his unevenness; but the rap against him then was much the same as it is now: "Needs a steadier application to sound work and more attention to basic rhythmic problems... His work is ill-organized and spasmodic."

Still, such analysis is irrelevant, even offensive, to those whose hearts and spirits are touched by Helfgott's playing, his story or his presence. "His heart is very involved," said one woman at the Auckland recital. "I'm feeling the music with him." After the Wellington concert, a woman dying of cancer wrote to tell Helfgott he'd made her feel that "life does have meaning and beauty and hope." It's easy to be snotty about recitals dubbed "The Miracle of Love," to dismiss Gillian Helfgott for her belief in astrology--or in David Helfgott--and to write off her husband as simply the latest pop incarnation of the Holy Fool, a real-life Rain Man or Forrest Gump. Helfgott's middlebrow appeal is all too explicable. He's one of those wacko artist types who make the average Joe feel both reflexively reverent and smugly superior-like van Gogh with his ear or Pavarotti with his belly. Yet while musical and cultural critics are smarting off, Helfgott and his wife and his audience seem to be sharing something beyond analysis. The miracle of Dove: how many quotation marks do we need to put around that before we feel safe?

On the plane, Qantas's in-flight magazine has a cover photo of actor Noah Taylor--and did he get screwed in the Oscar nominations-as the young David. The movie they're showing is "Shine." A flight attendant announces Helfgott's aboard; applause from business class and coach filters up front. Helfgott watches his life story, for the seventh time. Later, he's bending a stewardess's ear when the reporter comes up the aisle. Hug. "She came all the way from New York New York New York just to see me," he announces. In the reporter's ear he says, "It cost a great deal of money and it was all set up, wasn't it? It's all set up, all set up, just for me. We're going to New York then driving to Boston. Piano playing's got to improve, got to improve. I'm the luckiest man in the world, the luckiest." He's got that smile. The plane's making its descent, and the Helfgotts go forward into the cockpit for their first glimpse of the awesome awesome awesome continent ahead.