sun 16/06/2019

Je t'aime: The Story of French Song, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Je t'aime: The Story of French Song, BBC Four

Je t'aime: The Story of French Song, BBC Four

An ode to 'la chanson française' that proved a fascinating lesson in love

Petula Clark: from 'Downtown' girl to uptown Paris

The problem with many music documentaries is that they suffer from over-familiarity. In a bid to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, they end up spreading themselves too thinly on an area already well covered. Viewers tune in and, largely speaking, have their knowledge reaffirmed while they hang around on the off-chance that there may be some newly uncovered archive footage to make their investment worthwhile. There are notable exceptions to this, of course, and generally they crop close on their subject, or as in the case of Je t'aime: The Story of French Song, focus on an area that has been long neglected – indeed by many outside France it has simply been dismissed.

The reason for this indifference was nailed early on by singing-songwriting legend Charles Aznavour, who explained the cultural difference in outlook with charming, breezy economy: “La chanson française (French song) is a good lyric and, if possible, a good melody. La chanson américaine is a good melody and, if possible, a good lyric.” While exceptions to this broad rule immediately sprang to mind, they were largely irrelevant. In one sentence, he had given us all we needed to shift our expectations and realise that this was not so much the story of song as an ode to stories. Language is everything in chanson and key to understanding the form's lasting appeal.

It may have come as a shock to many to hear that our presenter, Petula “Downtown” Clark, had a hugely successful singing career in uptown Paris, but this history gave her exactly the command and tone needed to gently guide the story, one that was essentially split into two, with the revolutionary figure of Serge Gainsbourg acting as fulcrum.

If there is a personification of Charles Aznavour’s ‘words over music’ dictum, Alain Souchon is surely it

First were the early exponents of la chanson française. Pursuing the age-old intellectual concerns of language, performance, booze and prostitutes, they were shown to be wonderfully subversive and radical in a ripe, bawdy kind of way. Singers spoke of real life – or at least a version of it that had not been heard before. Then we were introduced to the figure of Charles Trenet, a name unfamiliar to some, certainly to me, who was among the first singers to write their own material – a trailblazing singer-songwriter who changed everything and paved the way for chanson’s postwar heyday in Paris. The footage of the three musketeers of French song's golden age, George Brassens, Jacques Brel and Léo Ferré, was a revelation – as was the extraordinary, melancholy talent of Barbara. The context crucial to understanding the impact and importance of these artists was given by a list of talking heads that (alongside theartdesk’s own Kieron Tyler) read like a who’s who of French music: Jane Birkin, Anna Karina, Juliette Gréco…

Of these, a few were also very well-placed to wax lyrical about Serge Gainsbourg, the agent provocateur of the new wave of chanson as the Sixties arrived. There’s much more to Gainsbourg than Je t’aime, the song that sent pulses – and birth rates – soaring and, thankfully, we got that. His hilariously titled 1965 Eurovision hit for France Gall (roughly translated as “Wax Doll, Singing Doll”), as well as glimpses of the refined, grown-up pop he wrote for Brigitte Bardot and the 1971 concept album Histoire de Melody Nelson were all covered with wit and calm authority, much like the man himself.

With a little more than ten minutes to go, there was a concerted dip for the line as we rushed through the Seventies, Eighties, Nineties and beyond in order to cover the ground left within the hour. In the case of Alain Souchon, this was frankly a blessing. As a contributor he was funny, smart and engaging. However, if there is a personification of Charles Aznavour’s "words over music" dictum, Souchon is surely it. There are clearly some "la chanson américaine" tendencies that I cannot curb entirely. Of the newer acts, Têtes Raides, Stromae and Zaz showed us, with elegance and style, that these poetic story-songs can easily bear the weight of more modern interpretation, and that the ability to “tell the truth with a beautiful language” is not something that is fixed in the past.

This was not so much the story of song as an ode to stories

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Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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All week I have waited patiently for this show hoping to see my favourite female singer that being the incomparable Francoise Hardy. What did we get just a couple of minutes of her then back to some sweaty Belgian and more Charles Aznavour. Disappointed or what.

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