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David Helfgott bumper sticker

7 November 2010

Store date: 17 December 1996

Director Scott Hicks’ biographical film Shine, about pianist David Helfgott, was released nationwide in the U.S. on 20 November 1996 after a successful bow at Sundance in January of that year. It was a smash. Geoffrey Rush went on to win the Oscar for Best Actor, and various recordings of the musical lynchpin of the movie – Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 – began selling like mad.

Not missing a beat, RCA put Helfgott’s own recording of the “Rach 3” on retail shelves in mid-December. Following the marketing lead of the wildly popular (or, more honestly, widely purchased) 1994 Chant CD by the completely unknown Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, they showered potential buyers with swag, ranging from t-shirts to bumper stickers (seen above) to coffee mugs (I know I still have one of those somewhere). All of this effort to sell a musical performance now known more for its celebrity than its critical acclaim.

Helfgott, you see, was a musical prodigy growing up in Melbourne, Australia in the ’50s and early ’60s. He won a scholarship to study at London’s Royal Academy of Music, but a successful career was derailed after he broke down from mental illness described variously as ‘schizoaffective disorder’ and ‘anxiety neurosis.’ His recovery from this illness and readjustment to the pressures of the musical world form the second half of the film Shine. The Rach 3 performance that RCA was selling in late 1996 came from Helfgott’s post-recovery period.

Not surprisingly, the Rach 3 CD and Helfgott’s live performances received a drubbing by the critical press. In The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini called Helfgott’s music-making “blankly unemotional.” Fanfare criticized his producers for “marketing Helfgott’s pain,” and Gramophone stated that Helfgott was not the “unsung genius” that the RCA marketing team would have the public believe.

At Laser’s Edge, we sold several copies of Helfgott’s Rach 3, but the tally came nowhere near the hundreds of copies sold of that Chant disc. Years later, you could always find at least one copy of each in our used disc area.

From → advertising, CDs, swag

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