Singer, songwriter, painter, poet, hellraiser and bon vivant. We tip our
beret to France’s finest cultural export, monsieur Serge Gainsbourg.
Imagine if Paul McCartney (insert name of your favourite one-time musical pioneer who’s now past his creative prime, but still treasured as a national institution) staggered onto a prime-time family chat show, unshaven, reeking of cigarettes and clearly drunk. He sits down on the sofa next to a beautiful, successful and much-loved singer – Kylie Minogue, for example.
Then, with a lascivious glint in his eye, he turns to the host and slurs: “I want to fuck her.”
The media would whip itself into a frenzy, disgusted viewers would send phone lines into meltdown and cultural commentators would no doubt be sounding the death knell for the disgraced star.
Yet, in 1986, on a Saturday night entertainment show in France, Serge Gainsbourg met Whitney Houston and uttered those very words to the polite, unassuming presenter Michel Drucker. There was of course controversy, but if anything, Gainsbourg’s stock seemed to rise. Musically, the man who re-invented French pop in the sixties and made the troubling orchestral-rock classic Histoire de Melody Nelson (1971) was very much in decline. But when he said what he’d like to do to young Whitney on live television, his public enjoyed a rare glimpse of the legendary provocateur at his shambolic, glorious best.
And he was quickly forgiven, just as he was in 1978 after recording a reggae version of national anthem ‘La Marseillaise’ (which earned him death threats from the far-right), and again in 1984, when he burned a five hundred franc note on television as a protest against tax hikes, which was then an illegal act according to the French penal code. When he died in 1991 of a heart attack aged sixty-two, President François Mitterrand eulogised, “He was our Baudelaire… He elevated the song to the level of art.” His funeral bought Paris to a standstill.
In Britain and much of the non-French-speaking world, Gainsbourg is chiefly known as the grubby mastermind behind the oft-parodied orgasmic pop classic ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus’ (released, aptly, in 1969), which got everyone’s knickers in a twist thanks to its explicit lyrics (“I come and go, between your loins…”) and his lover Jane Birkin’s breathy moans and groans.
But to the French, the singer, songwriter, painter, poet, filmmaker and all-round troublemaker meant, and still means, so much more than that. And now a richly entertaining new film explores the complexities of his life and work in an arch, playful style that the great man himself would no doubt approve of.
Ignoring the rags-to-riches, trauma-to-triumph formula used by American true-life stories such as Walk The Line and Ray, Gainsbourg (Vie Héroique) is more in keeping with a recent run of retro-chic French biopics including La Vie En Rose, Coco Before Chanel and Mesrine: Public Enemy No1. Playing fast and loose with chronology, it’s both subtle and bombastic, and has an impressionistic, sometimes surreal fairytale quality. Joann Sfar, its debutante director and acclaimed graphic novelist (the film is adapted from his own book), was clearly more interested in portraying the essence and myth of Gainsbourg rather than the cold facts. As the end credits roll, Sfar writes: “Gainsbourg transcends reality – I much prefer his lies to his truths.”
As well as a fitting postscript, this is also the key to the film and a perfect director’s statement. Sfar, a huge fan since his teenage years (“I had the same obsessions; I also wanted to have sex with Brigitte Bardot,” he has said), based his script entirely on interviews given by his hero rather than stuffy biographies. “I didn’t want to make a ‘journalistic’ film,” he admits. “Serge Gainsbourg created a character for himself. I don’t want to go delving into his personal life to discover who he really was. I couldn’t care less about the truth.”
Much of the film’s strength lies in its focus on Gainsbourg’s early years; in many ways, it’s a portrait of the artist trying to find his voice. The film opens with the young Lucien Gainsbourg (like rock’s other great shape-shifters Robert Zimmerman and David Jones – Dylan and Bowie – he changed his name at an early age, thus inventing his ‘character’) on a vast empty beach, staring at the sea. Sfar returns to this image a number of times, and it’s a potent metaphor for a blank slate onto which Gainsbourg could project his creativity and explore his various personas.
Yet it’s also a melancholic image, and he was plagued by self-doubt throughout his life – which might come as a surprise when you think of his fame and success between the sheets as a ladies’ man. An unlikely ladies’ man, too, given his startling looks – a strange hybrid of rat, turtle and wolf. He referred to himself as ‘l’homme à tête de chou’ (cabbage-head man), and once quipped, rather poignantly, “Ugliness is in a way superior to beauty because it lasts.”
In truth, it was a painful issue for Gainsbourg, and ex-wife Jane Birkin and other lovers have often spoken of his shyness and self-consciousness. But his personal demons went further than the surface. He called the ‘evil’, Mr Hyde like version of himself ‘Gainsbarre’, and in the film, his alter ego is made flesh in the grossly caricatured form of “Ugly Mug”, a giant, wise-cracking marionette with elongated nose, ears and fingers. Nevertheless, Gainsbourg used it to his advantage; just as his inner critic constantly pushed him, he in turn would push the boundaries of pop during the sixties and seventies.
Before this, as Gainsbourg began making a name for himself in the bars and nightclubs of Pigalle and Montmartre (a bohemian demimonde beautifully evoked by Sfar), popular music in France was still in the chanson tradition – the torch songs of Edith Piaf, the jazzy easy listening of Juliette Gréco and the explosive theatrics of Jacques Brel. All great pop music references the past while simultaneously tapping into the present to forge something fresh, and Gainsbourg’s genius was in skilfully harnessing the best aspects of chanson to the burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll and yé-yé scenes to craft countless pop gems.
The British tend to be a little sniffy where French music is concerned, and usually cite Johnny Hallyday as a prime offender (there’s a funny scene in the film where Gainsbourg is approached after a gig and asked, “Why don’t you write for Hallyday?” Without missing a beat, he flashes back: “I’d rather die”). But Gainsbourg’s songs – witty, insanely catchy, delivered in his insouciant, elegantly debauched style and featuring lyrics as sharp as his immaculately tailored suits – stand up well. There’s the gorgeous ‘La Javanaise’, with its deceptively romantic strings. “We were in love,” croons Gainsbourg softly, before the adding the kicker: “Until the end of the song.” Then there’s the rollicking ‘Le Poinçonneur des Lilas’, about a metro worker who gets so bored punching holes in travellers’ tickets all day, he fantasisesabout putting a hole in his own head. Or ‘Chatterton’ – surely the funkiest three-minute song about art, madness and suicide ever written. (Incidentally, the soundtrack is one of Sfar’s film’s central pleasures; it’s perhaps closer to a musical than straight biopic, and leading man Eric Elmosino’s performances of the songs are uncannily close to Gainsbourg’s renditions.)
He even wrote a Eurovision Song Contest winner for wholesome teen sensation France Gall in 1965. Gall was the first of Gainsbourg’s many muses, and it was through her that he also experienced his first major brush with controversy, thanks to the single ‘Les Sucettes’. Thinking it was a joyfully throwaway slice of bubblegum pop about the joys of sucking lollipops, Gall was horrified to learn Gainsbourg had actually penned her a double-entendre-laden ode to oral sex. Naturally, the appalled record-buying public made it a smash hit.
Gainsbourg achieved even greatersuccès de scandale with his next muse – and lover – Brigitte Bardot. Their brief, passionate affair was the stuff of legend; he was already one of the most famous men in Europe, she the original sex kitten. Bardot inspired him to write some of his best music: ‘Bonnie & Clyde’, ‘Initials BB’, ‘Comic Strip’ and, of course, ‘Je t’aime’.
But on the eve of ‘Je t’aime’s release, word got to the press that it was essentially a four-minute recording of the pair making love, and Bardot, who was married to influential German businessman Gunter Sachs at the time, couldn’t face the scandal and pleaded with her lover to suppress the song. He did, but it hurt. “The music is very pure. For the first time in my life I write a love song and it’s taken badly,” he sighed.
The affair was over, but ‘Je t’aime’ was released in all its throbbing, soft-core glory a year later, featuring his new girlfriend – gamine English home-counties beauty Jane Birkin, who Gainsbourg met while working on the film Slogan. (Bardot must’ve been relieved; radio stations instantly banned the song across the world, and even the Vatican issued a strong protest.)
Birkin later married him, a union that lasted for over a decade. She also directly inspired his masterpiece, Histoire de Melody Nelson. It seems churlish to say this given his sterling back catalogue, but if you only own one Gainsbourg record, this is it. It’s a Lolita-esque concept album whose troubled narrator drives his Rolls Royce into a teenage girl, Melody Nelson, and becomes infatuated. After deflowering her, she leaves him – but dies in a plane crash, and Gainsbourg is left to rue what might have been. An incredibly lean song-suite which comes in under half an hour, Gainsbourg’s key obsessions – sex, death, beauty, physical decay, art – are set to sinewy bass lines, distorted funk guitar and lush string arrangementsby noted producer and avant-garde composer Jean-Claude Vannier. It’s a hugely influential work, and contemporary hipsters such as Air, Beck, Jarvis Cocker, David Holmes, Portishead and Nick Cave all owe a debt.
Musically, he didn’t hit such a high again, although there were some gems to come: Rock Around The Bunker (1975), an incendiary fifties-style rock ‘n’ roll album about Nazism; and his penultimate LP, Love On The Beat (1984), which contains one of his most controversial ditties, ‘Lemon Incest’, a duet with his twelve-year-old daughter Charlotte. With its Chopin melody, it sounds very pretty despite its dubious subject matter. But the video – featuring Charlotte in her underwear draped over her dad’s piano – caused a furore. However, once again, the scandal translated into massive sales in France. Gainsbourg could do no wrong, even whilst doing wrong.
The eighties was a barren period for many established stars, and in many ways, it saw Gainsbourg’s decline. Maybe his messy, spiky, drunken TV appearances constituted his final persona; though, considering his life-long fondness for booze, women and partying, it seems inevitable he should end up like this. Perhaps the public were so quick to forgive him because they could live vicariously through him, a notion that resonates even more now in our health-conscious age. And Gainsbourg’s art is nothing if not intoxicating. Just make a playlist of his best songs, pour a drink and close your eyes, and you’re at the best cocktail soirée in the world. You can hear the glasses chink, smell the Gitanes.
Sfar’s Gainsbourg (Vie Héroique) is an intoxicating, immersive experience too, as playful, offbeat and colourful as its subject. While he doesn’t spend too much time on Gainsbourg’s final years, we still see the lows alongside the highs as Sfar explores the life of a fearless, eternally restless artist, always looking for fresh directions and ways in which to engage with his often outraged, but always entertained audience.
“I believe Gainsbourg is more heroic than Superman,” states the director, nodding to his film’s subtitle: Heroic Life. “Because a hero is someone who suffers and gets knocked down, but will still grab burning coals with his bare hands. A real hero is one who offers his audience chunks of scalding, molten lava, like Prometheus did.”
Gainsbourg once mused, “I have succeeded at everything except my life.” One hopes old Serge wasn’t being too serious; his life was his greatest work. And after all, although Gainsbourg could never save the planet,
Superman didn’t have sex with Bardot.
Gainsbourg (Vie Héroique) on DVD.
Writer : Graham Taylor / Photographer : Tony Frank @Sygma/Corbys