|Français : Serge Gainsbourg par Claude Truong-Ngoc, 1981 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|Serge Gainsbourg's grave, cimetière Montparnasse, Paris, France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
I have been spending quite a bit of time watching movies and TV shows lately on Netflix, and I have to agree with those activists who say Netflix threatens to become almost revolutionary in its effect on the public’s viewing demands. For $8 a month one has available hundreds and hundreds of what one might call “audio-visual” pieces, some of which first saw the air many years ago, and others of almost up-to-the-minute topicality.
For example, two of the best shows I have seen celebrate the work of two wonderful popular singer-songwriters, both of whose lives have given rise to complex stories that have made marvellous television.
The two were, of course, totally dissimilar. The first I saw was called “Searching for Sugarman”, and told the remarkable tale of an American singer with Latin-American roots called Rodriguez, who, when he first performed decades ago was almost totally ignored by the American buying public, and was thought since then to have declined into either an early death, or at least into total obscurity.
The second was a remarkable biography of the French singer-songwriter, Serge Gainsbourg, who for several decades strutted the stage of French popular music, and lived a life that never had him far from the headlines. I remember him coming to Montreal years ago, and being intrigued by the fact that he never appeared in public except as an unshaven, untidy, rough-looking but incorrigibly attractive person of whom one wondered how he ever got to command a microphone. Throughout an era that boasted many great names among its popular singers, names like Piaf, Greco, Aznavour, Montand, Brel, Georges Brassens, Leo Ferré and many others, all of whom were superb performers who gave us superb songs, Gainsbourg was an unclassifiable, distinct presence who stood for --- well, probably no one knew quite what he stood for, except probably for the free exercise of the human imagination.
As Wikipedia says of him: “His diverse artistic output… embodied genres ranging from jazz, chanson, pop, yé yé, reggae, funk, rock, electronic and disco….” Which about says it all. In addition they add: “His lyrical work incorporated a vast amount of clever word play to hoodwink the listener, often for humorous, provocative, satirical or subversive reasons. Common types of word play in his songs include mondegreen, onomatopoeia, rhyme, spoonerism, dysphemism, araprosdokian, and pun.” A well known example is a song written for a teenage girl singer who was under the impression she was singing about lollipops, unaware for many years that the song had a double-meaning; the enjoyment of giving someone fellatio.
Quite a character was Serge Gainsbourg, and he was so well-known in Paris that the job of representing his life on film must have been a daunting one. But I can report that the film, called Serge Gainsbourg, a Heroic Life, made by a comic strip author Joann Sfar, is a triumph. Using all sorts of graphic effects, introducing particularly a wonderful, engaging character as Gainsbourg’s Devil, Sfar and his superb cast, headed with almost miraculous fidelity by Eric Elmosnino in the title role, bring the whole thing off with a panache that matched Gainsbourg’s own attitude to life.
I remember in the 1960s when I was following the London stage that one day a young woman called Jane Birkin appeared naked for a few moments in a cameo role in a West End play, creating a stir in the newspapers the next day. Soon after, she auditioned for a role in a play in Paris although she did not speak French, and in that she starred alongside Gainsbourg, whose lover she became. Wikipeg\dia reports: “Birkin remembers the beginning of her affair with Gainsbourg: he first took her to a nightclub, then to a transvestite club and afterwards to the Hilton hotel, where he passed out in a drunken stupor.” They had a relationship that lasted for 12 years. Birkin made a ceareer for herself in Paris, where she still lives. She had a child with Gainsbourg, who had children by two other women, and who is remembered for his affaires with such celebrities as Juliette Greco and Brigitte Bardot (among others). All of this is dealt with in the film, which does not shrink from portraying the singer as, in his last days, a chronic drunk. He died in 1991 --- he was born in the month after I was born in 1928 --- and it has to be said that his reputation as a songwriter has soared since his death, so he is still fondly remembered equally with more famous celebrities, many of whom he mocked mercilessly during his lifetime.
The other songwriter I mentioned, Rodriguez has also given rise to a film that has received plaudits --- it won an Academy Award for best documentary one year --- although some criticisms have been established about its point of view. Rodriguez, who on the evidence of his film was indeed a singer-songwriter worthy of comparison with Bob Dylan, for some strange reason became a hero to youth in apartheid South Africa, and a few yeas ago, a group of these youths, grown to manhood, decided to try to track down the man who had so influenced them. They had collected many strange stories about his life, none of them confirmed, so one thing they had to establish was when did he die and by what means. They had some success in running down his work, which all confirmed his very high quality, and advertised in American newspapers for more information, expecting to hear, at the most, authentic stories of his death, They were much surprised when they received a note from a woman saying she was Rodriguez’s daughter, and her father was still alive. Staggered, the film-makers arranged for him to visit South Africa and give a concert, which drew tens of thousands of people. Men who worked with Rodriguez, who was making his living as a labourer, spoke in awe of having herard that he was a star, singing before thousands, in some far country.
Anyway, although he was in his 70s by the time the film was made, these South Africans did succeed in reviving the man’s career, or, at the very least, in drawing international attention to a singer who appeared to have been forgotten years before.
Except, some people have pointed out that Rodriguez never really did abandon performing. He had made several successful visits to Australia during the years he was supposed to have been working in some menial job; and later he made several visits to South Africa where he was greeted rapturously. These critics pointed out many gaps in the story as told in the movie: for example, the question of whether he did nor did not receive money for the earlier success of his records in South Africa all those years ago was never adequately explained. The reason given for these and other failures in the narrative was that the story was told from the point of view of the South Africans whose purpose was to re-discover their hero.
There is no doubt at all that the man was, and is, a remarkable talent, and one supposes that today he must be still performing, only to bigger audiences than ever before, in his native country.