Serge Gainsbourg: The Man and the Movie - Articles - Soundblab

Serge Gainsbourg: The Man and the Movie

by Ian Johnston Rating: Release Date:

Since Serge Gainsbourg's death at the age of 62 in 1991, the international reputation of the iconic French singer, songwriter, actor, director, painter, gifted tunesmith and brilliant lyricist (combining French colloquialisms, sexual frankness, poetry and literary sophistication) has only increased with each passing year. Though his only big hit beyond the borders of France was the infamous and erotically charged 1969 duet with Jane Birkin, 'Je T'aime… Moi Non Plus' (its backing of breathy coital moans over mournful, baroque organ, strings and a slow r 'n' b groove ensured profitable censure from the Vatican), the decadent provocateur Gainsbourg's vast musical legacy, covering a myriad of genres from French chanson, through jazz, mambo, Latin, rock, loungecore, pop, disco and reggae, has captivated an eclectic variety of musicians.

During the mid 1990s, Mick Harvey, formerly of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, translated many of Gainsbourg's key songs into English for the first time, displaying a rare, poetic sensitivity in the process, producing two full Gainsbourg covers albums, Intoxicated Man (1995) and Pink Elephants (1997), for Mute Records. An ardent version of 'Je T'aime… Moi Non Plus' sung by Nick Cave and Anita Lane, featured on the B-side of Lane's 1995 single 'The World's a Girl', also captured the ironic despondency at the core of Gainsbourg's most popular song; "I Love You, Nor Do I…. Physical love is a dead end." Film soundtrack composer and solo artist Barry Adamson, another former Bad Seed, had also successfully covered the song on his 1993 mini album, The Negro Inside Me. In 1995 Shaun Ryder's Black Grape fashioned a Gainsbourg pastiche with 'A Big Day in the North' on the imaginatively titled album, It's Great When You're Straight… Yeah!


Sonic Youth, Pulp, De La Soul, Portishead, numerous hip-hop samplers (Gainsbourg's fabulous duet with Brigitte Bardot, 'Bonnie and Clyde', has been endlessly referenced) and even Madonna would also draw inspiration from the varied numbers within the Gainsbourg songbook. In 2005, a tribute album entitled Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited was issued featuring The Kills, Placebo and Jarvis Cocker. This July sees the UK release of Joann Sfar's dazzling musical biopic, Gainsbourg, featuring an incredible performance from Eric Elmosnino in the title role. Elmosnino simply becomes Gainsbourg, capturing the songwriter's every gesture perfectly, and the actor's resemblance to the singer is most uncanny.

Born Lucien Ginsburg in Paris of Russian Jewish émigré parents in 1928, Gainsbourg was obviously mentally scarred by the extreme anti-Semitism of the Nazi occupation of France and the collaborating Vichy government during the Second World War. Gainsbourg managed to survive the conflict by hiding out in a rural Catholic school. But as Sfar's film illustrates Ginsburg/Gainsbourg was far from being just a victim. In one scene, the boy Ginsburg makes a mockery of his having to wear the yellow star marking him as a Jew, in the process risking his life, which Sfar highlights as the beginning of Gainsbourg's lifelong defiant anti-authoritarian stance.


Sfar's film, based upon his own graphic novel, imaginatively shows Gainsbourg's creation of protective fantasy alter egos through the use of animation, thus avoiding the rather pedestrian accounts of musical icons lives which have previously been depicted on screen (Ray, Walk the Line). The first alter-ego is a horrible round face that derides the vile anti-Semitic posters on the walls of Nazi occupied Paris. The second is a tall, thin figure with a huge nose and ears and very long finger nails (realised by the creative team who made the creatures in Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth) that is confident and critical compared to the shy and idealistic artist that Gainsbourg becomes as young man.

In reality, Gainsbourg, who considered himself incredibly ugly, named his own alter ego 'Gainsbarre' (a pun that is untranslatable), a drunken, unshaven and scary figure who caused numerous public scandals during the 1980s. Gainsbourg/Gainsbarre burnt a 500 franc note live on television, rather than relinquish it to the taxman and told a startled and bemused Whitney Houston in faltering English, after the interviewer refused to translate, that he wanted to "fuck her."

As charted in Sfar's movie, Gainsbourg eventually gave up painting in 1955, though he would often protest that "song-writing is a minor art, none of it worth a line of Picabia." He became a pianist (he had been taught to play by his father), a cabaret turn who started writing French chanson for female singers such as Juliette Greco ('La Javanaise'), Petula Clarke and Francoise Hardy, in the process becoming a wealthy superstar in France by the mid-1960s. One of the bittersweet songs that made his name, admired by peers like Boris Vian but not mentioned in Sfar's picture, is the 1959 hit 'Le Poinconneur Des Lilas', in which a Metro ticket puncher is tired of punching holes and dreams of the big shots in Miami living a life of leisure in the sun. Finally, the ticket puncher makes one last hole, a bullet hole in his head.

The Dionysian Gainsbourg was the enfant terrible of the French 1960s pop scene, but many of Gainsbourg's greatest 1960s songs, such as 'Docteur Jekyl et Monsieur Hyde, 'Qui est in, qui est out', 'Chatterton', 'Bloody Jack', 'Initials B.B.' where actually recorded in London with the Arthur Greenslade Orchestra. As the British capital began to swing and embrace psychedelic sounds and culture, Gainsbourg picked up on these trends and incorporated them into his own compositions. Gainsbourg wrote the lurid lollypop sucking song 'Les Sucettes' for the uncomprehending innocent France Gail, and competed with his friend singer Jacques Dutronic as to who could pick up the most ugly girl in a series of Parisian nightclubs. Gainsbourg the Pygmalion-style Svengali also wrote and produced a series of hits for some of the most beautiful actresses/singers of the era, including Brigitte Bardot ('Comic Strip', raucously performed by the superb Laetitia Casta as Bardot in Gainsbourg), Jean-Luc Godard's muse Anna Karina, Catherine Deneuve and Jane Birkin (radiantly portrayed in Sfar's movie by British actresses Lucy Gordon, who tragically took her own life before the release of Gainsbourg), enjoying sexual relationships with most of them.

Gainsbourg met Birkin, the English actress and former wife of film composer John Barry, in May 1968 while they were both auditioning for Pierre Grimblat's movie Slogan. Birkin was 21-years-old, while Gainsbourg was 40. Viewed by the media as a 'beauty and the beast' style coupling, Gainsbourg and Birkin became inseparable, making many films (including the Gainsbourg directed movie Je T'aime… Moi Non Plus in 1975, co-starring Joe Dallesandro and Gerard Depardieu) and classic records together ('69 Annee Erotique' featured on the first 1969 Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg album and 'La Decadanse' in 1972) before finally marrying after the birth of Charlotte Gainsbourg in 1971. Gainsbourg would describe the couple's relationship, a mixture of English and Russian heritage, as "a Bloody Mary, with plenty of vodka." The pair would eventually split during 1980, due to the singer's progressively more unreasonable behaviour, but would continue to work together right up until Gainsbourg's death.

The most risqué song Gainsbourg wrote was the 1984 hit 'Lemon Incest', in which the object of desire was his own teenage daughter Charlotte. 'Lemon Incest', based upon Chopin's 'Etude No III in E Major, Opus 10', really pushed the tolerance boundaries of the French public. "It was an important one to do," Mick Harvey told the author in 1995, after he had covered 'Lemon Incest' on his Intoxicated Man album. "The moral dilemma raised by it is really interesting. In his version, he made a joke about it as well, but there was much more to it than that. He had a picture of Chopin on his piano as his musical arbiter, and if it didn't cut the mustard with Chopin he'd drop the song. To take one of his favourite pieces of music and produce it disco-style was flying in the face of his own good, or bad, taste. For me it was interesting to set those lyrics back to their original, sensitive direction."

Arguably, Gainsbourg 's career reached an artistic highpoint with his 1971 semi-symphonic concept album with Jane Birkin, marvellously orchestrated by Jean-Claude Vannier, Histoire De Melody Nelson. The Histoire De Melody Nelson track 'Valse De Melody' forms the title music for Joann Sfar's film. The record tells the bizarre story of Gainsbourg's Rolls Royce running down a little red haired cyclist girl (Melody/Birkin) one rain swept night in England. In a Ballardian fashion, the crash, guided by the Spirit of Ecstasy mascot on Gainsbourg's Rolls, brings the couple together sexually. They live happily together in France, but Melody wants to return to visit England. During her flight home the plane crashes. A distraught Gainsbourg turns to the beliefs of the native tribe in New Guinea, the Cargo Cult, who perform rituals to bring down planes so that they can loot them, in the hope that Melody will be returned to him. If Gainsbourg had only ever produced Histoire De Melody Nelson his historical musical legacy would be assured.

Despite suffering from two major heart attacks and having half his liver removed, Gainsbourg continued to live his debauched life of self-abuse in the full gaze of the public spotlight, stinking of alcohol and wreathed in an endless cloud of pungent cigarette smoke. In 1975, Gainsbourg commented on the stagnation of the then oppressive rock scene and anticipated the rise of punk with his Rock Around the Bunker LP, featuring tracks such as 'Nazi Rock' and 'SS in Paraguay'. For a formerly German occupied country, the record was highly unpalatable. Clearly Gainsbourg wasn't going to let the French forget their countries occupation and the part collaborators played in the persecution of the Jews.

Perhaps partly inspired by witnessing Sid Vicious perform 'My Way' for Julian Temple's cameras while filming The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle in Paris, in 1979 Gainsbourg recorded a unique reggae version of the French national anthem, 'La Marseillaise', entitled 'Aux Armes Et Caetera'. Predictably, the French Right where incensed by the record, which caused as big a media furore in France as the Sex Pistols' 'God Save the Queen' had in the UK in 1977, drawing much anti-Semitic comment against Gainsbourg from certain French newspapers. As depicted in the Sfar picture, furious French paratroopers stopped a Gainsbourg gig from taking place, but the singer sang 'Aux Armes Et Caetera' alone to a hostile crowd. In the film boy and adult merge at this moment, Sfar underlining that Gainsbourg never gave in to repressive pressure his whole life. In 1981, Gainsbourg brought a full stop to the affair by purchasing at auction the original 1883 manuscript of 'La Marseillaise' by Rouget de Lisle for 130,000 Francs. "I was ready to bankrupt myself," Gainsbourg told waiting reporters in the packed auction house.

"Ugliness is superior to beauty," Gainsbourg once stated, referring to himself, "because it lasts longer." It would appear that he was right. When Gainsbourg died on 2nd March 1991 at his house in Paris' Latin Quarter, police held back weeping crowds gathered in the street and most of the national newspaper Liberation was devoted to covering his passing. Brigitte Bardot, who had not made any public pronouncement for 20 years that was not connected with her charity work for animals, said that she was not surprised about Gainsbourg's demise given "he was someone who had been destroying himself for a long time." The then minister of culture Jack Lang said that the French nation was in mourning and that Gainsbourg "personified a certain ideal of freedom." It is this heroic aspect of Gainsbourg's contradictory character that Joann Sfar's film, which the director freely describes as a "fairytale", captures so well.

Sfar's highly enjoyable Gainsbourg works both as a musical and a biopic, despite the fact that the singer's notorious TV duet with Screamin' Jay Hawkins of the blues howlers composition 'Constipation Blues' is unfortunately not recreated (do not despair, it can be viewed on YouTube.) Though the filmmaker deliberately chooses to avoid the more sordid side of his subject's latter years - the accusations of misogyny (misanthropy would be nearer the mark), his determined self-destruction and adultery - to focus upon his positive contribution to modern French culture, in the process introducing the singer/songwriter to a worldwide audience. Sfar may have also reclaimed some of Gainsbourg's compositions from the shadow of his outrageous public persona as "the dirty old man of Europe."

Having seen Gainsbourg and wishing to discover more about the songwriter, look no further than the following: the double DVD collection Serge Gainsbourg D'autres Nouvelles Des Etoiles, which features numerous vintage film clips of most of his famous songs, the following three career spanning CD collections, Du Jazz Dans Le Ravin, Couleur Café and Comic Strip, the Histoire De Melody Nelson LP (which has been reissued on vinyl) and Mick Harvey's Gainsbourg covers album, Intoxicated Man.

Gainsbourg opens in cinemas on July 30

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