Film Festival review: The Musical Mind

The power of the musical brain is explored in this new Scott Hicks film bringing together musicians David Helfgott, Ben Folds, Daniel Johns and Simon Tedeschi.

Oct 30, 2023, updated Oct 30, 2023
Daniel Johns and David Helfgott in 'The Musical Mind – a portrait in process'. Photo: supplied

Daniel Johns and David Helfgott in 'The Musical Mind – a portrait in process'. Photo: supplied

Celebrated Adelaide director Scott Hicks is on familiar ground in a documentary that references his Oscar-nominated film Shine to introduce pianist David Helfgott, now in his 70s. Helfgott’s life changed forever in 1996 when Shine came out – as did Hicks’ – and he found a new audience who saw triumph in his performance.

The pianist is one of four musicians whose process is looked at in The Musical Mind – a portrait in process. Hicks also brings in Helfgott’s friend of 20 years, former Silverchair lead singer Daniel Johns, who collaborated with Helfgott in 1999 on the band’s song “Emotion Sickness”. Both were present at the Adelaide premiere and Johns steered Helfgott, a great hugger, to his piano to play.

Produced by Kerry Heysen and Jett Heysen-Hicks, the documentary teases out some of the darker sides of being brilliant.

Ben Folds, who Hicks doubles up with in My Name’s Ben Folds – i play piano (the Adelaide Film Festival closing night film), sees the world through a lens of composition. He somehow plucks out of memory his first original work, written when he was about eight. Tunes loop endlessly through his thoughts, and in bed he arranges intricate orchestral lines.

Johns is different. He shares with Helfgott a history of mental illness, and claims to bamboozle people with guitar tricks. But he is an artist who builds songs using textures and synaesthesia, the visualisation of music as colours. His inspiration bypasses both heart and head.

Elite pianist Simon Tedeschi is another spin-off from Shine: 25 years ago, it was his sleeved hands you saw on the keyboard in scenes showing Helfgott as a boy – a feat he managed by threading his arms through the actor’s.

Tedeschi was a child prodigy and there is a hint of damage done. Looking at trophies and medals from his youth, he talks of battle scars, and how awful it was to be eternally praised. Now, he loves the adrenaline of performance and puts in intense rehearsal time to prime himself to walk on stage and, in his words, fire off thousands of neurones.

The most touching scenes have nothing to do with celebrity. Hicks spends time with the Bellingen Youth Orchestra and its inspirational principal conductor, Annie Phelan, who imprints music on her students. With Helfgott on piano, the students evolve from beginners who play notes, to musicians who understand what they are playing. Her gift will stay with them for life.

The Musical Mind: a portrait in process was part of the Adelaide Film Festival. The festival officially ended on Sunday, but encore screenings continue this week (details here). Read more Film Festival stories and reviews here.

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