'Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris' is based on the hit revue of the same name which introduced the titular Brel to an international audience and consolidated his reputation as a respected songwriter. Hugely influential back in 1968, the show flew in the face of Broadway conventions, paving the way for every revisionist musical which followed. This 1975 film from the American Film Theatre re-unites the original off-Broadway cast of Mort Shuman, Elly Stone and Joe Masiell.
It has to be said that this film is, well, bonkers! Ignoring a conventional narrative, the writer Eric Blau transforms a massive 35-song stage revue into a rather surreal musical showcasing singer-songwriter Brel's work. Jacques Brel (1929-1978) was one of the leading figures of French popular song and wrote poetic lyrics that were often satirical in nature. Brel's songs of melancholy, sensuality, and the undying nature of the human spirit are used as the framework of the film. Each song is a vignette and the director Denis Heroux utilises a mixture of location photography, stage settings, back projection and even puppetry to weave a flamboyant and infectious assembly of images to accompany them. Playing a taxi driver, a housewife, and a marine respectively, the leads Mort Shuman, Elly Stone, and Joe Masiell give fine voice to Brel's songs in a series of colourful settings. Each song is adapted to visualise a character's hopes and fears in an abstract way. Unlike most musicals a lot of the songs/scenes are quite cynical. A statue of a soldier comes to life and bitterly sings about dying in the Great War, and in another the middle classes are described as pigs. Brel himself also appears in the film and delivers a moving performance of his classic standard 'Ne Me Quitte Pas' (not that I knew what it was called, but I recognised the tune). It's pretty good scene, and stands out amongst the flurries of movement and colour that make up the rest of the film. Brel just sits at a cafe table with a drink and the camera slowly zooms in on his weathered features as he sings, in French, staring into the middle distance. It ends with a close up of his watery, sad eyes and then cuts to the next song. To his fans back then it was a poignant moment as his appearances were by that point few and far between, and he was barely 'alive and well'.
It's hard to imagine anything like this being made today. It's just so utterly uncommercial and 'arty'. As a musical it is pretty unique with all it's crazy seventies kaleidoscope imagery and it's torch song foundation. It is a gutsy piece of filmmaking but it is also an incredibly self indulgent work. A lot of the imagery is head scratching fodder that's just weird for weird's sake. Hey, trippy puppets dude! Parts of it do drag but the scene, and indeed scenery, changes with each song so you never know what's coming up next. Like all the works of the American Film Theatre it's hard to judge this as purely a film as it is so rooted to the stage. Film musicals by nature are a law unto themselves, and are very much an acquired taste. I know I usually give them a wide berth at Christmas and Easter, but I like the odd classic and was pleased to give 'Jacques Brel...' a spin. You may too.
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