French musical icon Serge Gainsbourg is an idol to pop music historians worldwide and a passing/obligatory curiosity to young hipsters in the US. It was only a matter of time before the singer/songwriter’s “Heroic” life received a biopic though the validity of the titular adjective is definitely up for debate (it could just be a sly nod to the subject’s subtly audacious and irony-tinged sense of humor or simply an exaggeration of his inner-turmoil). The film follows Serge from his youth as a self-conscious musical and artistic prodigy in Nazi-occupied France, through his rise to fame as songwriter extraordinaire. All of the necessary players are there: Brigitte Bardot, France Gall, Jane Birkin; all aptly portrayed as the glamorously flirtatious young beauties that they’ll forever be remembered as in photographs, films, and album covers. Gainsbourg’s success is, of course, accompanied by a fleeting happiness that leads to disco-era alcoholism and public craziness. The film ends on a somewhat positive note with Serge starting a new life with singer/model Bambou (played by Myléne Jampanoi of Martyrs fame), but childhood taunts and lingering antisemitism continue to plague him up to his untimely death in 1991 at the age of 62.
French comic book writer/artist-turned-director Joann Sfar imbues the film with a Fellini-esque whimsy that includes animations, anachronisms, and an aggressive caricature of a doppelganger for Gainsbourg in the form of La Gueule [the Face] played by Doug Jones who is best known as the monster faun in Pan’s Labyrinth and the fish guy in Hellboy. The film is filled with music, often in the form of stripped down versions of hits from Gainsbourg’s songbook that are, at times, a bit irritating to see played out in overacted rehearsals. It’s apparent by the film’s end that Gainsbourg, like most people, was a troubled man haunted by his youth and thus we’re all heroes, in a way. Some of us just write prettier songs than others.
NOTE: Look for a cameo from legendary French director Claude Chabrol in the role of a music producer.
Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life opens today at the Ritz at the Bourse.