Gainsbourg, the man behind the myth

Article publié dans FR2DAY en février 2010 (article published in FR2DAY in February 2010)

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Audiences across France are flocking to cinemas to see Serge Gainsbourg, Vie Héroïque (Serge Gainsbourg, a Heroic Life), a French biopic about one of the country’s most original artists of the 20th century. The movie is, however, less about the Gainsbourg myth than the man himself. As Joann Sfar’s biopic shows, the fascination with his life was as much about his creativity as about his private life and the numerous women the artist loved. So who was the man behind the myth?

Today many people remember Gainsbourg as a provocative artist who burned 500 francs during an interview, made a lewd proposal to Whitney Houston on live television, recorded a reggae version of the sacred «La Marseillaise» and appeared half naked with his 14-year-old daughter Charlotte in the video for «Lemon incest». His 1969 duet with long-time companion Jane Birkin, 1969 “Je T’Aime…Moi Non Plus,” was banned in many corners of the globe because of its steamy lyrics and explicit heavy breathing but still reached the top of the charts throughout Europe and became the first French song to be number one in England.

But Gainsbourg was much more than an over-the-top artist and provocateur. After his death in 1991, he was hailed by President Francois Mitterrand as “our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire” and nobody can argue today that his impact on French music is inestimable. Whether one listens to Serge Gainsbourg’s early recordings from the fifties and sixties, his compositions for other artists or more contemporary albums, one hears the music of a man totally connected to his time. With over 200 songs recorded by everyone from Marianne Faithfull and Petula Clark toIsabelle Adjani and Vanessa Paradis, Gainsbourg reached an audience that spanned generations and borders.

Gainsbourg was born Lucien Ginzberg in Paris on April 2, 1928. His parents were Russian Jews who fled to France following the events of the 1917 Bolshevik uprising. He survived the German occupation and attended the Ecole Superieure des Beaux Artsafter the war before working as a bar pianist on the local cabaret circuit.

Gainsbourg’s early songs attracted the attention of other artists and soon he was writing for singers from the left bank such asJuliette Gréco and Yves Montand. He gained his status as France’s main songwriter soon after, in 1965, when France Gallwon first prize at the Eurovision festival with his song “Poupée de cire, poupée de son“, (Doll of Wax, Doll of Sawdust).

By all accounts, Gainbourg was rough, coarse and even downright nasty at times. He was an indifferent-looking guy with a cynical approach to life and a very dark sense of humor. Still, he managed to get most women he wanted. Gainsbourg thought of himself as a very ugly man, and this self-consciousness lent a dark edge to his music. It may be that eccentric behavior and challenging music that made him so fascinating and hypnotic for women. His image fitted so perfectly the “dark, moody artist” mould.

The beautiful women who crossed his path became his muses, and sometimes his lovers. Aside from Jane Birkin, his most famous conquest was without doubt Brigitte Bardot with whom he performed in the late ‘60s a series of fun duets, such as “Comic Strip” and “Bonnie and Clyde”. With Bardot as his muse, Gainsbourg’s music suddenly became erotic and delirious, and the scenes that recount their romance are the highlights of this very interesting movie about an even more interesting character.

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