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Serge Gainsbourg, French Songwriter Lost in Translation

Posted by Thomas Riggs in music poetry world literature on January 28, 2010


Like many people in France last week, I went to the opening of Gainsbourg (vie héroïque), a film about Serge Gainsbourg (1928-91), the French songwriter, provocateur, and cultural icon. It’s hard to imagine the American equivalent of Gainsbourg, who is as famous in his own country as Elvis Presley is in the United States. To describe his personality and public presence, I thought about combining Bob Dylan, Abby Hoffman, and Charles Bukowski, but any mélange of American personalities would lack the French sensibility of Gainsbourg and the French culture that he both embodied and challenged.

That Gainsbourg, an inventive and disturbing cultural force, was virtually unknown in the United States even during his lifetime reflects the cocooning effect of language. Gainsbourg sang literary and sometimes shocking lyrics and provoked traditional French citizens into a fury, but Americans, deaf to the French language, were left undisturbed and unaffected.

The French book blog Cafebook has a good review of the film from a French perspective. When the film finally makes its way to the United States, Americans will get a chance to see a bit of why he was one of the strongest cultural forces in France during the second half of the twentieth century (and will not see anything from his last decade, when he was older and often drunk and sometimes less than impressive). Americans will also understand how he is now summarized: representing a strain of French Jewish identity after Nazi-controlled France; leading a dissolute life of drinking and smoking that eventually killed him; dating among the most beautiful women of his era, including Brigitte Bardot; and writing songs with sophisticated lyrics (often interpreted by other French singers), some of which trespassed the accepted borders of French society. When in 1979 Gainsbourg recorded a reggae version of “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem, he provoked a riot.

Although Gainsbourg had relations with many women, he is best known for his marriage to Jane Birkin, who, despite being British, sang and continues to sing in French. Their daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg, is an actor and singer whose most recent album, IRM, was reviewed last week in the New York Times.

Here is the movie’s trailer. It seems at times more appropriate for a film called “The Sex Life of Serge.” The actual film is more subtle, artistic, and surrealistic, but alas, such is marketing.

Bande-annonce (vf) 1 : Gainsbourg – (vie héroïque) @ Yahoo! Video

For a glimpse of Gainsbourg in the 1960s, below is a video of “La Javanaise,” which he initially wrote for the singer Juliette Gréco.

Serge Gainsbourg La Javanaise
envoyé par lechacal. – Regardez plus de clips, en HD !


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