Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris is probably the most unusual and least obvious choice of the fourteen dramas chosen by the American Film Theatre for adaptation to film. The intention however was not just to bring serious stage drama to a wider cinema audience, but also to include a number of Broadway stage shows and musicals that the wider American public might not otherwise ever get a chance to see. Before the project collapsed, the AFT managed to film one musical drama, Lost In The Stars, and a successful Broadway theatre revue of Eric Blau’s staging of cabaret torch songs and street ballads by the legendary Belgian singer/songwriter Jacques Brel.
Jacques Brel’s songs are very much of the French tradition of singing that will be more familiar to English-speaking audiences through the songs of Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour, but would be more closely aligned with the classical poetic troubadour tradition of Georges Brassens and Joan Manuel Serrat. Brel’s songs are characterised by a wonderful exuberance, a celebration of wine, women and song, yet they are often tempered by an edge of bitterness, a sense of a melancholic longing for an youthful innocence uncorrupted by the horrors of war or the fear of old-age, death and oblivion. Blau’s staging of English versions of 27 Brel songs for Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris is bold and intriguing. Although there is no overarching narrative, the songs flow well from one to the next and are often linked thematically or through imaginative situations – selecting, for example, a barman to sing of the idealised woman he will marry while surveying his clientele in ‘Bachelor’s Dance’, and moving to another client, a sailor sitting in a corner getting drunk in the bar while reminiscing of ‘Amsterdam’ with a rather less idealised picture of the fair sex. There is also fine use made of settings, mixing location shooting with stage sets and pioneering pop-video techniques in others, with the occasional enigmatic cameo by Brel himself and only a few songs getting the predictable stage-school prancing around by theatrical backing singers and dancers. There is also good variation in the musical arrangements – as the songs can have a tendency to sound rather similar, both in their tone and their subject matter – giving a full range of waltzes and tangos, accordion café music, larger orchestrated ballads and even a Salvation Army-style arrangement for one song, ‘Timid Frieda’.
The songs are divided – slightly artificially but successfully to a large extent – into three or four types sung by three characters – a soldier, a taxi driver and a housewife. Joe Masiell, as the soldier, sings songs of grand hopes and idealism turning to disillusionment – a statue sings his own epitaph in ‘Statue’, speaking more plainly about his actual accomplishments than the memorial words on his plinth, while in ‘Next’ he bemoans the loss of innocence in his conscription to the army. The theme is stretched a little to him appearing as a priest and a bullfighter in ‘Alone’ and ‘The Bulls’, although the subject matter stays within the grand, emotive themes of death and violence. Elly Stone, wife of director Eric Blau, who created the musical Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris around some of the Brel songs in her repertoire, plays the housewife, singing reflective ballads of youthful idealism and fancy – “I loved all games and fairy tales” (‘I Loved’), “Carnivals and cotton candies, carousels and calliope… we will always remember these”, (‘Carousel’). Again though the memory is tarnished from a mature perspective - “…and then the war began” ends the reminiscences of ‘My Childhood’ - and the reflections on growing old are most obvious in (‘Old Folks’). Mort Shuman plays the taxi driver, and to my mind gets many of the good songs – songs of exuberance and lust, womanising and drunken carousing, singing of the obviously autobiographical persona of being a celebrated songwriter in ‘Jacky’, his lust for a beautiful passenger in ‘Taxi Cab’ (“the bed is big enough for three, one of her and two of me”), or as a drunken sailor in ‘Amsterdam’ drinking to whores of Amsterdam who “have promised their love to 1000 other men”. Again however, many of these songs have a darker edge, reflecting on obscurity in death and the falsity of the hangers-on his fame attracts (‘Funeral Tango’). The three together sing songs of wider issues of society and politics – ‘Marathon’, ‘Last Supper’, ‘The Desperate Ones’ (“They watched their dreams go down behind the setting sun”), ending all these songs of pessimism and disillusionment with the hopeful ‘If We Only Have Love’.
The singing and staging styles are sufficiently varied to keep the viewer’s interest throughout each of the 27 mostly 3-minutes songs, but how much one will enjoy this is very much subjective, depending not only on liking of Brel’s material, but on how one takes to the very free translations of the songs, some of which suffer greatly both lyrically and in their interpretation. A renowned Brel singer, Elly Stone is, to my ears at least, very much the conventional stage singer, with a nice timbre in her voice that is reminiscent of the style of Julie Covington, but it is fairly monotone and lacking in range, tending to quaver. She unfortunately has no dramatic stage presence, but does have an emotional heart that brings out the tenderness of the songs. Joe Masiell gives each of the songs an appropriately dramatic and emotive performance, rising in intensity to crashing punchlines, although tending to push his voice into an almost Gene Pitney whine, drawing out the notes. Mort Shuman is the least theatrically demonstrative of the three and consequently, his performances transfer better to the filmed version of the musical. All lip-sync in the film with varying degrees of success. Putting it all into perspective and perhaps a little unfairly to the other performers, Jacques Brel himself appears midway through, completely overshadowing everything else with a simple ‘live’ arrangement of ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’, showing how much deep personal meaning and emotion each word of his songs hold, as well as the exquisite phrasing that is completely lost in translation into English.
The American Film Theatre series was an ambitious attempt in the 1970s to bring drama rarely seen outside a Broadway stage to a wider American public. Each of the fourteen films that were made benefited from some of the finest stage actors and directors of the period, capturing some of remarkable original productions and permanently preserving them for future audiences. Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris follows the AFT DVD releases of The Homecoming, Butley, A Delicate Balance and The Man In The Glass Booth, Rhinoceros, The Iceman Cometh and The Maids, Galileo, In Celebration, Philadelphia, Here I Come, Luther and Lost In The Stars as part of the complete set of all fourteen titles in the American Film Theatre Collection. Each of the releases contains a substantial number of relevant and high quality extra features. All the DVDs are region-free.
The video quality for this release generally isn’t too bad, at least within the limits of what we have come to expect from American Film Theatre releases. There are less artefact problems than on other AFT releases, the image remaining fairly stable throughout with little more than a few dustspots here and there. Colours are, as usual, slightly washed-out and lacking in natural tones, and have a tendency to fluctuate. Blacks show no detail at all and are rather flat and murky. The picture is certainly very soft and has an NTSC-converted video-sourced appearance, but it is more than adequate for the presentation of the material.
A completely musical soundtrack, it would be lovely to have better scope and dynamic range, but unfortunately the film is constrained by the original mono track, presented here as Dolby Digital 2.0. Despite the limitations, the audio track functions quite well, lyrics for the most part remaining clear and audible, voices steady and there is an absence of hiss or background noise. There appear to be a few ‘bumps’ here and there, but for the most part, this is as good as could be expected.
There are no hard of hearing subtitles on the feature or on the extra material, which is a pity as the lyrics aren’t always perfectly clear and certainly merit attention.
Interview with Edie Landau (22:26)
The Executive in charge of the AFT, Edie Landau explains how the project came about, how they chose which plays to film, how they got everyone involved, and how the enterprise eventually failed. This is the same interview that is present on a number of the other titles.
AFT Second Season Message (6:13)
A filmed message from Ely Landau as a thank you to subscribers at the end of the first season of films, the producer reflects on the ideal of the AFTs aim to preserve theatre on screen and takes a look over what films had been made so far. Again this feature can be found elsewhere on quite a few other releases.
AFT Trailer Gallery
Trailers are included for Three Sisters (2:41), Lost In The Stars (2:05), The Maids (2:57), Luther (2:28), Rhinoceros (1:50), The Iceman Cometh (2:37), The Man In The Glass Booth (2:27), A Delicate Balance (3:19), The Homecoming (2:29) and Butley (2:53).
AFT Second Season Brochure
The cinebill or programme notes contains articles on Brel (‘Who Is Jacques Brel?’), the filmmakers and their original staging (‘On Eric Blau and Denis Heroux’), and on the musical tradition in general (‘Roger Greenspun on Movie Musicals’).
“Jacques Brel and Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris ” by Michael Feingold, the Chief Theatre Critic for the Village Voice, covers the life of Brel (1929-78), his musical heritage and background information on the performers in the stage and film versions of the production.
Jacques Brel’s songs will certainly be an acquired taste and not to everyone’s liking. Even for those who like Brel, their staging and interpretation here, to say nothing of their translation into English, will also not be to everyone’s liking, but the poetic beauty of the songs does often come through. It’s a brave production that is certainly adventurous by musical theatre standards in this film version. Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris is more than welcome for its variety and certainly worthy of inclusion on its own merits amongst the higher art drama productions of the American Film Theatre series.