[8 June 2007]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
Walk the Line. Ray. Coal Miner’s Daughter. Bird. The list goes on. Factor in the forthcoming Control (about Ian Curtis) and See Me Feel Me (about Who drummer Keith Moon) and it’s obvious that the musician biopic film isn’t going to die out any time soon, and for good reason. Studios love ‘em: each movie comes with its own built-in audience, serves as great Oscar bait, and has a long life on video as a historical document. These films introduce whole new generations to the music of both celebrated and neglected legends, and gives new context to songs that are sometimes half-a-century old. Sometimes they’re miraculously successful (Walk the Line) and sometimes they just don’t live up to the legacy of the artist being covered (The Doors and any made-for-TV movie covering Brian Wilson’s life). Yet no matter how good or bad these films are, we have a hard time looking away: the Behind the Music factor is too strong, the music too good, and our investment is only two hours.
And then came “The Sparrow”.
Édith Piaf is the quintessential French singer. Her life has been anthologized and mythologized almost as much as her music, and any single year of her life would be a dramatic full-length movie in itself. Born Édith Giovanna Gassion, she was raised in the streets, conjuring cash out of customers during her father’s traveling show, eventually being “discovered” after singing on a street corner. Cabaret owner Louis Leplée groomed Piaf for stardom, and gave her the stage name “La Môme Piaf” (roughly translating as “the little sparrow”). Seeing her live was an event in itself: this young petite woman had a voice that could shake an entire theater. She courted countless lovers during her years, usually songwriters who she collaborated with and then dumped as soon as she became bored with them. Yet the songs that were produced were tailored specifically for her: “La Vie En Rose”, “Milord”, “Mon Légionnaire”—the list goes on. Each of these songs was about being raised in the streets, fighting against the odds, and rising above the travesties of one’s own life. The French populace connected to these themes time and time again, each song being the template that every single Paris-bound chanteuse is compared to, though the comparison is often futile: no one, ever, will replace Piaf’s stature in music history.
Divorced from the movie’s images, the soundtrack to La Vie En Rose (known simply as La Môme overseas) serves as a very concise best-of album. The disc itself is divided into three parts: Piaf’s original recordings, Christopher Gunning’s original score, and additional music from the film, most interpretations by Jil Aigrot, the singing voice of the Sparrow in the movie. It should go without saying that the original Piaf recordings far-and-away outshine everything else on the disc.
The disc opens in melodramatic fashion with “Heaven Have a Mercy”. For many, these will be the first words they ever hear of Piaf: “No more smiles / No more tears / No more prayers / No more fears.” It may seem a bit heavy-handed, but it perfectly sums up the dramatic up-and-down life she held. The words by themselves may not seem all that powerful, but this simply shows another reason why Piaf is so great: she added drama to each song. Like Sinatra, she knew how to emphasize words, inflecting them in such a dramatic way that you never once question the authenticity of her conviction. The Tin Pan Alley playfulness of “Milord” is Piaf at her best, flirting with every line, a wry smile attached to her face. Even when singing in English on the title track, the overall effect is not lost: there’s the slight French accent curving her words, but her words come out as clear as a bell. One could go on about the highlights: the playful introduction of “Padam Padam” leads to some beautifully held-out notes, Piaf’s shy vulnerability on “L’Hymne a L’Amour” and so on. As a crash course, the first eleven tracks serve as an absolutely perfect introduction as to what made Miss Gassion one of the greatest divas of all time.
The rest of the soundtrack isn’t necessarily forgettable, but few things can compare after Piaf’s show-stopping opening act. Christopher Gunning’s score is pleasant and typical of your run-of-the-mill movie drama, but he gets credits for incorporating “Mon Légionnaire” into the orchestrations. Most stunning is the choir-backed “L’Eveil”, riding on a soft cloud-like melody with a waltz tempo. Jil Aigrot gives a mighty attempt at trying to imitate Piaf’s originals, and though the cadence of her voice is spot-on, Aigrot lacks the volume that Piaf had, singing somewhat casually compared to Edith’s “each-note-is-my-last” conviction. It’s a remarkable imitation, but it ultimately is just that: an imitation.
At 27 tracks, the soundtrack demands a lot of its listener, but those with patience will be rewarded. Though some run-of-the-mill greatest hits compilation might do the job, here we not only have an impeccably sequenced run-down of Piaf’s hits, but we also have Jil Aigrot & others to compare the Sparrow to, proving just how unique Piaf was. Even 44 years after her death, Piaf remains a true icon, featuring one of the most spectacular song canons in pop history. We don’t need a movie to be reminded of why she was great in the first place, but having one certainly doesn’t hurt.