Directed and hosted by Philippe Labro (Sans mobile apparent / Without Apparent Motive), this episode of the French TV series Legende is a surprisingly moving portrait of Serge Gainsbourg, one of France's most popular songwriters and composers during the sixties, seventies, and early eighties.
Labro plays host and narrator and provides some firm anchoring as a plethora of archival clips and stills are used to chronicle Gainsbourg's rise and fame as a composer and performer who created a bridge between populist crooners and French singers/poets, and whose style ultimately captured the attention of a devoted following.
What quickly develops from this portrait is a tragic figure whose physical attributes engendered a powerful self-loathing that even ex-partners Jane Birkin and Bambou describe as incredibly potent, and ultimately self-destructive.
After honing his craft as a pianist in bars – much in the way Georges Delerue eked out a living before films opened a whole new career for his powerful talent – Gainsbourg earned a modest following as a singer/songwriter, but it was his collaboration with Brigitte Bardot for the album Bonnie and Clyde that propelled him to stardom. Soon after, the composer appeared in Pierre Grimblat's Slogan (1969), where he met Jane Birkin, the British-born waif who became his muse for the rest of his career – even after the couple divorced, Gainsbourg would continue to write for Birkin, including her album Baby Alone in Babylone (1983).
Labro's doc is actually quite straightforward, but it's compelling because most of the details come from archival interviews with Gainsbourg where he's sometimes viciously candid about his own self-loathing, and the cigarettes and alcohol that became both a trademark and the devices he used and abused to destroy himself at the age of 62.
Birkin's interviews cover her first impressions of Gainsbourg (which are quite funny), as well as their years together, the strange lives as a family and celebrity couple touring local clubs until 6am, and Birkin's ultimate tiring of the nightclubbing that hastened the end of their marriage.
Home movies and Birkin's recollections also paint the composer as a loving father who possessed a gift for capturing the attention of his two daughters (one born to Birkin from her prior marriage to John Barry), and some TV interviews supplement some narrative gaps, as well as support stages in the composer's life: footage of Gainsbourg and Birkin soon after their union, and concert footage of Birkin, as well as Gainsbourg in his final years, saying his lyrics instead of singing them as in his older days.
The composer's stance as provocateur are also illustrated through his hit song with Birkin ("Je t'aime...moi non plus") as well as his reggae version of “La Marseillaise” that spawned a controversy lasting several months.
After his first career as a songwriter, Gainsbourg took a poke at acting, which included Slogan as well as Melody (1971), the latter briefly excerpted in the doc, as well as a few clips from the films he directed in his final years, before a heart attack finally killed this compelling figure in 1991. Both Birkin and Bambou don't restrict their sadness in having watched the man they admired, loved, and respected destroy himself, perhaps cementing Gainsbourg as an eternally compelling figure whose inability to accept his physical self bred a seething hatred existed alongside a brilliantly gifted composer and lyricist.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan