September 13, 2007

"La Vie en Rose"

Here's my review for The American Conservative of the musical biopic about singer Edith Piaf:

Why is the "struggle with inner demons" such a staple of movies about musicians and actors?

Part of the reason is selection bias: producers aren't dying to make "The Johann Sebastian Bach Story" because composing a new masterpiece for Sunday church services each week while raising 20 children didn't leave Bach much time for self-inflicted drama.

Nonetheless, on average, performers really do live more chaotic lives than the rest of us. The detective novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler explained in The Little Sister, his novel about a troubled actress: "If these people didn't live intense and rather disordered lives, if their emotions didn't ride them too hard -- well, they wouldn't be able to catch those emotions in flight and imprint them on a few feet of celluloid ..."

Nobody lived a more intense and disordered life than Edith Piaf (1915-1963), the Parisian chanteuse depicted in the melodramatic and moving French film "La Vie en Rose." While her contemporary Judy Garland became an icon to male homosexuals (the gay liberation movement began in 1969 when drag queens returning from Garland's funeral rioted at New York's Stonewall bar), Piaf was a national heroine, as French as Johnny Cash was American.

Although many showbiz biopics punch up the drama with fiction, writer-director Olivier Dahan's big problem was what to leave out to keep "La Vie en Rose" down to 140 minutes. Amusingly, he omitted World War II, which Piaf spent in German-occupied Paris. (The embarrassing reality is that while Piaf did help the Resistance, her career, like many French culturati's, flourished during the Occupation, which was easier in Paris than elsewhere -- the more Francophilic and civilized German officers tried to wangle assignments there.)

Many pop stars concoct hardscrabble mythologies to blur their privileged upbringings. For instance, the lead singer of the great leftist punk rock band The Clash gave himself the macho prole name Joe Strummer to obscure that he was the son of a diplomat.

Piaf's childhood, however, was the real thing. Abandoned as an infant by her mother, a street singer and prostitute, her father, a circus contortionist, dumped her with his madam mother to grow up in a bordello. When the little girl went blind from conjunctivitis, the whores with hearts of gold chipped in to send her on a pilgrimage to Lisieux to pray at the grave of St. Therese. Her sight restored, she began singing in her father's street corner act.

Dahan chopped up the storyline of "La Vie en Rose" chronologically, perhaps because Piaf's life was such a string of catastrophes that a straightforward retelling would have left punch-drunk audiences giggling at the one-damn-thing-after-anotherness of it all.

At 18, she had an illegitimate child, who soon died, and she fell under the thumb of a pimp. Piaf was discovered singing on the street at age 20 by a nightclub owner (played by the formidable Gerard Depardieu), but he was murdered and the police at first accused her. The great love of her life, middleweight world champion boxer Marcel Cerdan, died in a plane crash on his way to a rendezvous with her in New York. A painful car crash turned her into a morphine junkie, and cancer killed her at 47, before which she looked to be 80.

Perhaps due to childhood malnutrition, she only grew up to be 4'-8". (Despite being over ten inches taller, Marion Cotillard somehow portrays Piaf with spectacular verisimilitude.) Like Dick Cheney, her head inclined to the right. Out of this sparrow-like frame emerged an enormous voice, magnificent and nasally piercing, perfect for belting out "Le Marseillaise."

In these days of easy electronic amplification, it seems strange that for centuries the great challenge to professional musicians was to generate enough sternum-vibrating volume to blast the full emotional and physical power of the music out to a large paying audience.

By the time of Piaf's discovery in 1935, Bing Crosby had revolutionized singing by introducing a quieter, more conversational style suited to the microphone, but she mostly stood by the old loud mode. At her peak in the 1950s (despite all her woes, she continued to improve as an interpreter of songs), she could sound lovely, but the film chooses to emphasize her more stentorian style. To 21st Century audiences Piaf might sound like a curiosity, a pocket battleship Ethel Merman. Still, "La Vie en Rose" is one of the best musical biopics.

Rated PG-13 for substance abuse, sexual content, brief nudity, language, and thematic elements.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Not to quibble, but I believe it is "La Marseillaise." Pas Le Marseillaise."

Anonymous said...

I wonder if we’ll be seeing any more Piafs soon and if the entire idea of the volatile artiste is incompatible with the modern entertainment model.

The high-stakes winner-take-all revenue model needs to recoups large upfront costs/profits over longer timeframes and in multiple mediums if possible. This requires stable workmen-like professionals who aren’t going to self-destruct once the taste of success hits them.

Think of how Curt Cobain’s business backers are kicking themselves watching him OD just as he’s became a reliable moneymaker. They probably hoped he be generating profits and on tour into his sixties like Mick, Clapton and McCartney.

- JAN

Steve Sailer said...

The more of a trainwreck Brittany Spears becomes, the more Las Vegas nightclubs pay her to "host" parties. In Vegas, there's no such thing as bad publicity.

ricpic said...

I don't doubt that Piaf suffered but to a large extent, maybe a fatal extent, she also embraced suffering. This is a significant factor in Latin culture and after all, French culture, especially lower class French culture, is Latin culture; maybe not at the operatic level of Italian culture but at a high level of self-dramatization. Having grown up in an Italian-American neighborhood I can tell you that the overdramatization of even the mildest human intercourse, though often playful, frequently gets out of hand and leads to violence -- violence to others, violence to the self. This accounted for a significant part of Piaf's misery. The film, utterly without intellect, didn't even hint at this unecessary element in her suffering.

Anonymous said...

But Steve Vegas nightclubs are not the direction you want to take Brittany's once sky-high career. She commands some trainwreak attention now, but eventually even the Enquirer will stop turning their heads.

If Madonna had done what Brittany is doing, she'd be still be singing "Holiday" as her opening act for The Shoji Tabuchi Show in Branson, MO.

- JAN

Anonymous said...

Steve --

Yes Britney can command money at Vegas or appearing at parties (I'm told Paris Hilton gets 100K per party appearance!!)

But that's not "real" money.

The real money used to be in records sales, (before Napster/iTunes). Now the music industry has no way to sell to young consumers who were the core of profits. Well, sell at a profit.

Who's going to buy Britney's music now? Her fans are YouTube laughingstocks. People will AVOID her music.

Meanwhile U2 churns out hits reliably, decade after decade.

John of London said...

Steve,

would you agree that Piaf was the only major western popular singer after about 1930 not to be noticeably influenced by Black American musicians? This goes much further than one might imagine - "the influence of Louis Armstrong on Vera Lynn" is not a joke.