Voice that enchanted postwar Paris reaches a new generation
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.