Voice that enchanted postwar Paris reaches a new generation

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

She might be called France's "Dreamgirl." Edith Piaf sang, with arms outstretched, of enduring love, of a world apart, of romance and falling leaves and all that is beautiful. Yet her voice is what matters. It was a basso clarinet, never trained, a huge sound from a tiny body that rose out of grimy streets to become "The Voice" of France – a blend of romance and realism that captured the gaslights and boulevards of a Paris that lives only in memory.

Piaf's life lasted 47 years, but each could fill a novel – from her childhood in a circus and a brothel to her being discovered on the Champs-Élysées as a teen by a cabaret owner who helped her dominate the Paris music scene for decades.

She had epic dalliances and married France's most famous boxer. She could sing with such intensity that she collapsed onstage.

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Now Piaf's life fills a film released Valentine's Day amid tributes to the performance of Marion Cotillard as Piaf.

Partly, it is France's answer to Hollywood's immensely successful "biopic" genre. Unvarnished films on artists such as Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Jim Morrison, and Charlie Parker are huge hits and a "soft power" US export. They've evoked resonant performances, like Jennifer Hudson's best-supporting actress Oscar for "Dreamgirls," which opened in Europe just days ago.

The Piaf film aims to introduce France's most legendary singer to a new generation at home and abroad. Young French know Piaf as a national icon who wore black and was très petite. But many don't know her story. In the US, the film comes out this spring as "La Vie en Rose," after a song Americans may recognize when played, since it and other Piaf tunes adorn the background of countless films set in Europe.

"Hold me close and hold me fast," the song starts; it ends, "Give your heart and soul to me, and life will always be, la vie en rose." Add Piaf's lilting voice and you have nothing less than the Eiffel Tower of French tunes. (For a listen, click on http://www.rhapsody.com/edithpiaf.)

On Feb. 1, director Olivier Dahan's film had the distinction of opening the Berlin Film Festival under its French name, "Le Môme," which means "the kid," Piaf's early nickname.

Even today, the street-waif turned diva continues to inhabit a world apart in France. Pop music now exists as a series of subcategories, whether hip-hop or country, rock or jazz. But Piaf managed to transcend age and social class in creating an urban French sound."We are always trying to compare [Piaf] to singers today. But the fact that we can't find anyone is a tribute to Piaf's special status," says David Lelait-Helo, one of her biographers. "If we are still talking about her 45 years later, that's proof of her standing."

Piaf's persona might be akin to Billie Holliday, Judy Garland, and Janis Joplin rolled into one. When she first came to New York in 1947, she nearly took a U-turn back to France. Postwar American audiences didn't "get" her.

Only a supportive column by the venerable music critic Virgil Thomson of the New York Herald gave her the courage to stay. Piaf returned eight times, touring everywhere and hanging out in Beverly Hills with Ginger Rogers.

In Paris, Piaf started in Belleville, the low-rent outskirts of Paris, where there's now a statue at Edith Piaf Square. She sang on the street, a popular Parisian art form at a time when radios were a luxury. She sang in the "comedy" style of Maurice Chevalier – vaudevillian songs of absurdity and fun. Yet cabaret owner Louis Leplée, played in the film by Gerard Depardieu, helps her adopt the other French style: realism. This music catches the sad, longing mood of Paris in the post-World War 1 "belle epoch" period, and Piaf made it her own. "It was truer, deeper, in a sadder context of nostalgia, a kind of French blues that got Piaf taken seriously," says musicologist François Levy, who wrote text for a Piaf exhibition in 2004.

She moved from street bars to cafes to cabarets, and up to music halls. In occupied Paris, Piaf played cabarets whose light came from generators run by stationary bicycles. After the war, impresarios fought over her, since Piaf always sold out. She kept one hall, the Olympia, in business for years.

That musical world faded by the late 1970s. But Piaf has not.

In Paris, the film has been closely scrutinized. How do you portray a national icon whose life has been shredded into myth by friends, husbands, and hangers-on? Reviews run from vacuous five-star admiration to tough two-star dismissal.

Mr. Dahan's attempt at fast-paced flashbacks of Piaf's life make the film difficult to follow, critics say. But Ms. Cotillard's performance is unique.

Unlike Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles or Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison, she lip-syncs Piaf's voice. Her study, down to Piaf's habits of blinking, is called a work of art. Some baby boomers, soaked in Piaf's legacy, roll their eyes at a French film that evokes all the stereotypes about romantic Paris.

The film, oddly, avoids wartime Paris entirely. Mr. Levy felt the debate focuses too much on cinematic aesthetics of Dahan's movie, and not enough on Piaf.

It was a remarkable life. Piaf's origins could not have been humbler. Her father put her, at age 5, in a brothel run by his mother – an improvement from the neglect of maternal grandparents, biographers say. She collected tips for her father's contortionist act. He wanted her to join him but she couldn't walk on her hands. One day, holding the tip basket, she was asked to sing. She knew only the Marseillaise. But her rendition astonished everyone.

As Piaf became the star of Paris, moved from obscurity to daily headlines, she became more convinced that her life was a kind of miracle. The sense was amplified by an unexplained healing, biographers say. While living in the brothel as a child, she lost her sight during an illness. What happened wasn't clear. But Piaf prayed at a shrine of St. Teresa, and the problem disappeared.

She retained a mystical, non-church-going regard for God, heard in her song "Mon Dieu," and in Roman Catholic France she always performed wearing a cross.

In a certain sense, Piaf was too authentic to be a "bohemian" in avant-garde Paris. "She would laugh at the idea of a voice coach," says Levy. "Her idea is that the voice touches the soul, and words are just a pretext to let this through."

Piaf gave away all her money, supported an entourage of hangers-on, and promoted the careers of her many male admirers. She once gave a fur coat to a woman on the street. She would say that "my voice is my treasure, and I will always perform again."

Even her trademark "La Vie en Rose" was written down on a napkin for a down-and-out singer as they sat at a cafe, and only later performed by Piaf. She was irresistible to men. Her main tragedy was the death of husband Marcel Cerdan, the French heavyweight champion. Her "Hymne à L'amour" was his tribute. Once established as a diva, she fiercely protected her position. She was consumed by drugs, alcohol, clubbing, and pressure until her death in 1963. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Mr. Cerdan's last name and misnamed the song written in tribute to him.]

"You must never forget that Edith came from the street. She was very proud. She's hard on others, but she's equally hard on herself," says Mr. Lelait-Helo. "It is always a challenge for her to be loved. She wants to be loved all the time. Her stage was where she could be safe and successful. So she lives in her art. At the end, she goes on what's come to be known as the 'suicide tour,' where she's plays every night, sings all night – and this she doesn't survive."

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