THESE DAYS, DAVID HELFGOTT wants to hug everyone. At a New York City reception celebrating his and his wife's arrival for a much anticipated U.S. concert tour, the lanky 49-year-old pianist grabs a virtual stranger, wraps him in a bear hug, then invites him to the piano. "Keep smiling," he murmurs as he begins playing Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." "It's a miracle. Have you seen the film? It's the greatest movie ever made. Oh-ho!" he brays. "I'm very, very lucky."
In some ways Helfgott certainly is. Despite a long battle with what doctors describe as a "schizoaffective disorder," he's not just functioning but heading out on a sold-out tour of 11 cities. What's more, the low-budget Australian movie Shine, which chronicles Helfgott's years as a piano prodigy, his battle with mental illness and his triumphant return to the stage, has grossed $30 million in the U.S. and earned seven Academy Award nominations. Helfgott's recording of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 (the torturous "Rach 3" that prompts his breakdown in the film) has soared to the top of classical charts in his native Australia, England and the U.S. And wherever Helfgott plays, fans respond with thundering ovations and rush to the stage to touch him. "It's like we've been attached to a very friendly rocket and put into orbit," says his wife, Gillian, 65, whose book Love You to Bits and Pieces: My Life with David Helfgott is selling briskly. Adds David: "It's awesome, awesome, awesome."
But what might have been a purely jubilant comeback tour—not to mention a high-profile push for the film's Oscar chances—has become something that looks, from certain angles, like a disaster. While audiences love him, critics have panned Helfgott's performances for his sloppy technique, thin tone and his distracting habit of talking and singing to himself onstage. "He is not a finished performer in any sense," sniffed The New York Times. Some observers slam Gillian Helfgott and greedy promoters for exploiting the emotionally fragile artist. And others, including one of Helfgott's sisters, Margaret, have questioned the film's accuracy—particularly when it seems to suggest that Helfgott's late father, Peter, abused his children. "The film is brilliant," says younger brother Leslie, a violinist. "But it's not factual. It is a fictitious tale inspired by David's life. My father was not a brutal person."
Others close to Helfgott strongly defend the tour and the movie. "David's a born performer," Gillian says. "He wants to be there showing his talent." And she insists that Shine's director, Scott Hicks, faithfully interpreted Helfgott's early years. As Hicks says, "The portrait [of David's father] is valid according to the research I was able to assemble from many different sources. We're talking about a difference of opinion."
Helfgott's opinion about the fuss remains a mystery. He gives no formal interviews but clearly relishes the spotlight. Performing in America has been a dream since his childhood in Australia, where his Polish father had settled in 1934. Money was scarce—Peter made a living as an electrician while his wife tended to their five children—but the Helfgotts' home was filled with music. The elder Helfgott, who had lost relatives in the Holocaust, taught each of his children to play an instrument. While he may not have been as cruel as the character portrayed by Armin Mueller-Stahl in Shine, Peter's discipline overwhelmed his sensitive son, and when he denied the 14-year-old boy a chance to study in the U.S. in 1961, David was devastated. Five years later, at 19, he ignored his father's protests and accepted a scholarship from London's Royal College of Music, causing a rift that still haunts him. While in England, David won prizes for his playing but grew steadily unstable. "It's all daddy daddy, daddy," he says of his father, who died in 1975. "But I mustn't talk about it."
After spending a few weeks in a London mental hospital following a breakdown in 1969, Helfgott returned to Australia, where he was married briefly to an older woman with four children and found work as a rehearsal pianist for the Western Australia Opera Company. Attempts at a normal life soon failed, and during much of the '70s, Helfgott was in and out of institutions. In 1983 he was living in a halfway house in Perth when his brother Leslie found him a job at Riccardo's, a local wine bar. The quirky pianist became a hit with the patrons, and when the owner introduced Helfgott to Gillian, a professional astrologer with two grown children from a previous marriage, she fell too. "I was stunned by him. The way he kissed me and talked so quickly," she says. "There was talk about putting David back into an institution, and I just knew I could never allow that. There was a path ahead for us."
Since their marriage in 1984, Gillian has brought structure to the artist's life—and weaned him from his daily habit of 125 cigarettes and 10 cups of heavily sugared coffee. Today, Helfgott, who is in the care of a psychiatrist and takes a mood stabilizer to stay balanced, spends his hours practicing, reading newspapers, embracing people who venture into his orbit and swimming at the couple's rural home in New South Wales ("The weightlessness takes away the stress," Gillian explains). And while her husband can seem divorced from reality, Gillian says the acclaim has empowered him.
"David has gradually gained a greater sense of wholeness," she says. "I doubt he'll ever be as we would say other people are. But there has been a flowering of him." Back at his Manhattan reception, David agrees. "It's a miracle. I'm very lucky. But I must keep playing, playing, playing."
PETER AMES CARLIN
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