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.