The 1997 Academy Awards were dubbed “Independents’ Day” due to the rare prevalence of independent films in all the big category nominations, with films like Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies and The Coen Brothers’ Fargo getting more attention than their respective authors were used to. Still, it was the unknown Australian director Scott Hicks who really represented the underdog in Hollywood with his biopic, Shine– a portrait of real-life prodigy piano David Helfgott.
Hicks does a beautiful job crafting the film, and the actors who play Helfgott- particularly teenager Noah Taylor- really blend together nicely as they tell the story of a brilliant pianist who becomes mentally unhinged (Geoffrey Rush won an Oscar for his contribution). Great, too, are the supporting actors- Armin Mueller-Stahl, hitting the mark as usual with his “overbearing immigrant father” shtick, and Lynn Redgrave comes in at the end of the film to give it a sweet and hopeful conclusion.
Which is not to say the film is flawless- it does succumb to the standard biopic tropes of seeing the rise, fall, and then rise again of our musical protagonist. There are plenty of passionate piano playing scenes that put you inside the mind of Helfgott, slow-mo shots, dramatic closeups, you name it. Stahl’s aforementioned “overbearing dad” follows a long line of films, such as Amadeus, with that cliche- as are the inspirational musical mentors that take Helfgott under their wing and help him tap into his true potential.
There’s also the standard controversy of having the filmmaker rewrite History in order to make the story more dramatic, which, if you care about that sort of thing, will bother you to no end. But for the rest of us, Shine is probably one of the best examples of this well-tread genre, and a good argument why independent cinema will always trump the money-driven Hollywood system that churns out heartless, generic pap week after week. Despite the well-tread tropes, Shine shines brighter than the more conventional, bigger-budget versions- simply because it was made by a real person who got to tell his story, his way.
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