Smitten as ever with le grand Jacques, but rarely getting time to listen these days, I finally succumbed and borrowed the DVD of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris from Planet Video in Mount Lawley last week.
Can’t say I wasn’t warned – apart from a few fanatics who must be tone-deaf or very tolerant, almost every online review I read had stressed how awful the film was.
It’s not Brel singing – though he does make a brief appearance to sing Ne me quitte pas at one point in the film. It’s the filmed version of a stage show built around translations – sometimes complete makeovers – of a clutch of Brel’s songs into (American) English.
We saw the Perth version of this stage show, minus some of the numbers, two years ago, with much better singers and far greater dynamism – a production to mark the 30th anniversary of Brel’s death. It did, however, downplay the politics and was more about pure entertainment. The original play dates from 1968 and even in the later film you can see many of the political and social concerns of that time being alluded to or openly referenced in the way the set of songs has been stitched together.
Some of the translations are quite good, or at least quite in keeping with the spirit of the Brelien universe. Some are weak.
The film dates from 1975 and feels at least as dated as that, or more. It’s as if the filmmaker was trying to cross Godspell with Hair and Rocky Horror, and run it through the sieve of a chaotic Andy Warhol production.
That on its own wouldn’t bother me – chaos being okay to some degree, and representative of what they were trying to say about the world.
But the voices of the singers in this film version were unbearable to me. And I don’t think it’s just the inevitable mental comparison with Brel himself – Elly Stone is simply too shrill for my liking, and the others watery and wobbly. (I did find Stone's rendition of Marieke quite moving, but I suspect it was the translation and the melody itself. Here is Brel's.) Voice styles change, go in and out of fashion – some seem to transcend that, as Brel's does, but not these. I tried just watching the versions of my own favourite songs, but it was painful.
Still, I put myself through it. And survived to tell the tale. One for desperate fans only (if then).