The Édith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose omitted a significant part of the singer's history: life in Nazi-occupied France -- a time where Piaf was a regular performer at German forces social gatherings and many considered her to be a traitor. Later she would claim to be a member of the Resistance, but she would always be suspect.
Screenwriter and cartoonist Joann Sfar is following suit with his directorial debut, Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque), about the life of legendary French singer-songwriter, actor and director, Serge Gainsbourg. The film made its French premiere in January and stars Eric Elmosnino as the chanteur -- following his beginnings in Nazi-occupied Paris, through his song-writing career in the 60's, to his death in 1991. Early reviews for the film have indicated that Sfar may have glossed over the turbulent 80's -- a darker period in Gainsbourg's life where he grew more aloof, alcoholic and his charming bad-boy behavior became a lot less tolerable for many.
While Sfar has indicated his film is not intended to be a straightforward biopic: "It's not the truth about Gainsbourg that interests me, but his lies," the director has said -- it seems odd that he would make a film about such a prominent figure and neglect to even touch upon this part of his life. Gainsbourg was a brilliant, complex and influential artist, and these controversial moments were part of what made him such a beautiful and tragic figure.
After the jump, check out seven memorable moments in the musician's provocative life that may or may not be included in Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque), but will be sure to entertain nonetheless. If you know anything about Gainsbourg, then you can probably guess that some of these videos may be NSFW.
The man who claimed he was too "ugly" to perform some of the very songs he wrote, spent a lifetime singing with several of the most alluring women in the world. Gainsbourg's prolific songwriting propelled the careers of artists like France Gall and Françoise Hardy, while he was simultaneously recording his own albums, some of which would become all-time classics of French chanson. His duets marked various pivotal points in his career where Gainsbourg, the cultural icon, transformed into Gainsbourg, the legend. His collaborations with women like Jane Birkin and Anna Karina simmered with the inherent sexual tension between man and woman -- a tension that was present in each lyrical call and response.
Early 60's Yéyé lolita pop brought Gainsbourg and young hopeful France Gall together for the award-winning song Poupée de cire, poupée de son, but it was the song, Les sucettes (Lollipops), that created a stir due to the pairing of Gall's completely naive performance to the tune of Gainsbourg's "oral" double entendre about a young girl's craving for sweet aniseed liquid running down her throat. Hmmm ...
After launching a film career for himself, Gainsbourg met Brigitte Bardot in 1959 during the shooting of Michel Boisrond's film Voulez-vous danser avec moi? He was reunited with the voluptuous bombshell in 1968 during rehearsals for a TV program about her life and the unlikely duo started an intense, passionate affair. Gainsbourg wrote several songs for his new muse including the immortal Bonnie and Clyde, whose catchy hook has been sampled by many artists over the years. Comic Strip and Harley Davidson were also hits and with Bardot's creative and sexy costuming, they became fan favorites after they were broadcast on Show Bardot. You really can't go wrong with Brigitte Bardot in a cape and decked out in leather. Too cool!
Gainsbourg recorded the notorious Je t'aime moi non plus with Bardot while she was married to millionaire Gunther Sachs so the actress begged Gainsbourg not to release the song since the simulated sexy sounds might raise an eyebrow. However, Gainsbourg released a new version of "the ultimate love song" -- remastered with his latest girlfriend, the 22-year-old English actress Jane Birkin, in 1971. Their relationship was surrounded by scandal which the singer thrived on, but his infatuation and affection for Jane was very real and the inspiration behind his beloved masterpiece, Histoire de Melody Nelson. The pseudo-autobiographical concept album tells the story of a middle-aged Gainsbourg having an accidental meeting (his car "crashes" into her bicycle) with a teenage Melody Nelson and the affair that follows.
Prior to Melody was Gainsbourg's collaboration with Godard darling, Anna Karina, for her 1968 television musical, Anna, for which he wrote the soundtrack and also starred in. Karina performs the duet for Ne dis rien with co-star Jean-Claude Brialy in Anna but my favorite video version is the tender slow dance she shares with Gainsbourg.
No, No ... He Said You Are Great.
Inviting an intoxicated artist on live television is a recipe for something unusual to happen -- especially when that artist is Serge Gainsbourg. During the final years of his life, Gainsbourg made regular appearances on French TV where his unkempt appearance and provocative behavior proved that he hadn't mellowed with age. And thank goodness for that or we wouldn't have clips like this one where Gainsbourg told singer Whitney Houston quite graphically what he wanted to do to her during Michel Drucker's live Saturday evening show. It was 1986, during the singer's rise to fame. After being swept off her feet by international stardom and treated like pop culture royalty, Houston was clearly flummoxed by Gainsbourg's comment.
Always a trend setter and never a follower, Gainsbourg discovered his love for reggae rhythms in the late 70's -- a bold move to make during the height of disco and punk music. He recorded his 1979 album Aux armes et cætera with some of the top Jamaican musicians at the time: Robbie Shakespeare, Sticky Thompson, two members of Peter Tosh's rhythm section and several of Bob Marley's backup singers -- including his wife Rita. The album took a week to record, was a critical and commercial success and produced two hit singles, including Gainsbourg's reworking of the French national anthem (La Marseillaise), for which the album is named. During his French tour for the album, Gainsbourg's stop in Strasbourg marks the performance where the singer was heckled and nearly shoved off stage by a group of patriots and French soldiers while playing Aux armes et cætera. Gainsbourg cooly stopped his reggae version and slipped into a traditional performance of the anthem. Even though the song was considered an insult to the French Republic, it became a huge success and topped the charts for weeks. Eventually Gainsbourg purchased the original manuscript of La Marseillaise at auction and showed critics that his interpretation was actually closer to the original than any other recorded version.
Gainsbourg's 1984 album, Love on the Beat, boasts a controversial but successful single, Lemon Incest, which he sang with his then twelve year old daughter Charlotte, who he also recorded the video with (note their attire). The title plays on the French chorus "Un zeste de citron (A lemon zest)" and "Inceste de citron (Lemon incest)" and while some of her breathy lyrics that translate to phrases like "The love that we will never make together, is the most beautiful, the most violent, the most pure, the most heady," seem pretty straight forward, I'll let you judge for yourself.
Although Gainsbourg's music videos were cinematic in and of themselves, he had several ties to the film world. A quick peek at IMDb details the extensive filmography that Gainsbourg's work has been a part of as well as the films he wrote original scores for. But being heard was not enough, he also had to be seen: he starred in Herbert Vasely's Egon Schiele Exzess und Bestrafung, and has made appearances in other movies. Gainsbourg took a turn behind the camera, directing several films that created a stir with audiences due to their seemingly autobiographical nature. Je t'aime... moi non plus (there's that familiar title) tells the story of a gay man who is attracted to an androgynous woman (played by Gainsbourg's wife Jane Birkin). His film Équateur was screened at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival (out of competition) and Charlotte For Ever starred his daughter Charlotte and tells the tale of a screenwriter grieving over his wife's unexpected death. Now suicidal, he turns to his daughter for affection. Stan the Flasher is about a flasher with a penchant for young girls he cannot physically satisfy.
Live television became the platform once again for a different kind of Gainsbourg "performance" when he protested heavy taxation by burning a 500-franc note -- something that is illegal to do. In an interview with the Guardian, Jane Birkin lovingly explained that this behavior was just par for the course: "He bought a Rolls-Royce that he used as an ashtray because he didn't have a driving license, and it amused him to say that he got the money for it from Tito's communist government after making a film in Yugoslavia. He went all over Switzerland to find the best lobby for his nugget of gold, and then he lost the address of the bank. I have no idea where his nugget is now."
Rita Mitsouko singer Catherine Ringer had a run-in with Gainsbourg on yet another live talk show where he told her, "You're nothing but a filthy whore," and then some. Ringer had appeared in several porn films and for whatever reason this didn't sit well with Gainsbourg, despite having composed music for several erotic films and, well, just being Gainsbourg. Ringer retorted with "Look at you, you're just a bitter old alcoholic. I used to admire you but these days you've become a disgusting old parasite." This was somewhat shocking because it was one of the first times anyone had ever really confronted Gainsbourg's bad behavior, but it was a sad moment seeing France's idol reduced to a shadow of his former self.