Musical biopics can often be a dry and crusty affair. You’ll find that someone, usually a famous fan, waxes lyrical about how seminal a band/artist was, as the screen flickers through a series of pieces of really old footage that’s so exciting it’s been stuck under a sofa for 40 years. Then Johnny Depp… sorry, the narrator… tells us that the world is a sadder place without them.
Luckily, Gainsbourg director Joann Sfar isn’t a fan of musical biopics (check out our forthcoming interview with him for confirmation of this fact) and so his film about legendary French singer, songwriter, poet and lover of the rich and famous Serge Gainsbourg is a riotous celebration of a life less ordinary (not the Danny Boyle film, obviously, that’s a lot less exciting than Gainsbourg’s life).
If you don’t know who Serge Gainsbourg is, here’s the basic lowdown: born Lucien Ginsburg to a family of Russian Jewish descent, he spent his childhood in France under the Nazi occupation. His father worked to instill a love of music in young Lucien, but his first love was painting – a love that was, however, only to end in failure.
However, whilst earning a crust playing piano in various bars, Ginsburg (or, as he soon called himself, Serge Gainsbourg) was discovered and his songs brought to a mass audience. As his renown grew, he became more experimental both in music and in life. He shifted from traditional ‘chanson’ music to jazz, to electro and to reggae, just as his personal life shifted from marriage, to affairs, to Brigitte Bardot, to Jane Birkin and then a disenfranchised drug addict whose grandfather happened to be a German General.
Through his exploits and his fantastical music, Gainsbourg became a French cultural icon in an era of French cultural icons. And it is this je ne sais quoi that director Joann Sfar seems to want to capture in his graphic novel and, our subject here, his film adaptation.
The main tool Sfar adopts in creating this atmosphere is the music itself. So often music plays just a bit part in biopics of musicians, and we are treated merely to a series of psychoanalyses of stars amidst fragments of their creative output. But here, much of the story is structured around the creation of seminal tracks in the Gainsbourg catalogue. We are hurled into the crazy fling with Bardot as he creates his playful ‘Comic Strip’ track, we are dumped into his depression for the edgy electro ‘L’Homme a la tete de choux’ (a reference to Gainsbourg’s own ‘cabbage head’ ears), and we are bounced around his piano hall days as he plays his tragi-comic chansons. It really is the best way to experience the life of a musician, and it makes for mesmeric viewing.
That’s not to say that we never get under Gainsbourg’s skin, because we do. It’s just that we aren’t taken there simply by poignant scenes (though there are plenty of those), nor are we drawn there by sympathetic characters trying to understand him. Nope, Sfar takes us into Gainsbourg’s soul through the use of a parodied anti-semitic puppet who serves as the man’s alter-ego, drawing him deeper and deeper into his life of sensual artistry. So manic and so exciting is this puppet, that we are even treated to a scene of it playing the guitar whilst on fire, simultaneously burning down Gainsbourg’s appartment and all of its art. These scenes take the film beyond a simple story of an icon and into a surreal journey into the myth he became.
These audio-visual tools are supplemented superbly by stand-out performances from the cast. Comedian Eric Elmosnino excels as Gainsbourg himself, sinking effortlessly into the role whether he has to be an exuberant lethario or a melancholic depressive, whether he is 30 or 50. The range on show is fantastic. Laetitia Casta does a great supporting turn in the daunting role of Brigitte Bardot, bringing bags of fun to the sexy actress/songstress and young Kacey Mottet Klein is a revelation as the uber-confident young Lucien Ginsburg.
Whether you know and love Gainsbourg or not, this is a wild ride into the depths of French culture that is constantly innovative and entertaining, and still manages to do justice to an amazing life and the music it created.