THE FRENCH AND THE LOVE OF THEIR OLD STARS
We are sentimental about those who die young – Marilyn, Jimmy Hendricks, & especially Ayrton Senna, so why laugh about the French and their love for old stars?
What is it about the French and their old stars? Johnny Halliday’s funeral last week was nothing short of presidential. When a singer/rock star in the UK is ‘over the hill’ they are farmed out or hope to have a sunset career in Australia or Japan – or Germany, a country littered with ageing pop stars rejected because of the obsession with youth in the UK.
Some think the French reverence for their ageing stars is simply sentimental. But it is more than that. They feel an emotional gratitude to the singers, actors and musicians who have created their life’s memories, and memories should not be discarded like yesterday’s newspaper.
I grew up with the role models of Juliette Greco and Jeanne Moreau. Later, as film translator for the National Film Theatre in London, I translated a 1948 Rive Gauche documentary, Greco’s first film appearance, still with her original nose. At that time she had not much more than a pair of cast-off men’s trousers in which to haunt the Jazz clubs of Paris.
When in Paris Miles Davis and Juliette became lovers. Davis was adored by the set of the Left Bank who had no problem with black musicians at a time when in the USA even Ella Fitzgerald, when appearing in hotels, was made to enter by the service door. The French public fell in love with the Davis/Greco affair. And when they had to part because, in the USA, Miles Davis could not walk with a white woman on his arm, let alone marry her, their broken hearts became part of Greco’s legend. Seven noses later, in her last concert in 2015, she looked a little more like Michael Jackson after his face remodelling, no gloves to hide her liver spots, but the public loved her just as much if not even more.
Jeanne Moreau, spirited to the last, was also part of the Left Bank set of singers, actors and musicians. Again later, in London, I translated the first feature film she wrote and directed. When I met her she was fifty five but had lost none of her appeal. Since, there have been icons such as Kate Bush and Audrey Hepburn, but compared to Moreau and Greco these were simply cute. Jane Birkin has become loved by the French by association with Serge Gainsbourgh, but she could never exude what Moreau and Greco had in spades – the growling, prowling, visceral sex appeal that reached both men and women.
I was never a great fan of ‘notre Johnny’. Contrary to my French classmates who could not contemplate listening to songs if they could not understand each and every word, I was into the real thing, American Blues, Jazz and Rock very early in my teenage years. And however rocky and gyrating Johnny got, with him, as with all French language singers, it was all about the words, not the music. It is one of the reasons a lot of French pop songs just drone on, like a long, never-ending poem (apart from Aznavour and Piaf, I’m not quite sure how long it took the average French song writer to discover the magic middle eight).
I, along with the rest of French people of my generation, am grateful for the memories those stars gave me. I had no problem with watching Vanessa Paradis duetting with the somewhat crumbling Jeanne Moreau and her smoke-filled voice a few years ago. But I do get the creeps when I see Cliff Richard on TV, leaping onto the stage like a demented teen – (because of course in the UK culture you have to look young at all costs) – and not being able to sing any longer. I makes me want to scream ‘shut up and get off the stage’. When it comes to singing I now feel the same about McCartney and Elton whose voice seems to have become buried in his embonpoint, as we say. Greco, like many old French singers don’t have that problem. They were never belters, singing from the gut. No one expects them to reproduce the power of their young years. Greco’s craft is that of a diseuse, words, a story sung, ever so slightly – I doesn’t matter how old and wrinkled the singer is. Some of Greco’s early songs completely changed meaning when she sang them as an old woman. They became philosophical, illustrating that everyone will be old, sooner than they think – no amount of hair dye or Botox will save them. For the French age is no reason to push old stars down the garbage chute. Instead they celebrate longevity.
Moreau died recently, Greco is still there. I wonder who will get the next ‘state funeral’.
A.Burchardt 13 December 2017
An interview with Beatrice von Tresckow, fashion designer with an extraordinary past. Click here to read the interview
The story of Baron de Ferrières, a French nobleman who became Mayor and MP for Cheltenham Spa from 1880 to 1885. On his death he bequeathed an astonishing and valuable collection of Dutch paintings to the town, including a Rembrandt.
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Hidden between two busy shopping streets in Cheltenham stands St. Mary’s church which dates from the 9th century. Few people visit this architectural gem. Only a few years ago the church was threatened with closure which would have resulted in its certain descent into disrepair and eventually ruin. The stained-glass windows are its outstanding features as well as the original stone tracery of the rose.
Photos © A. Burchardt
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