By Remi Bonnet
There are not many french singers who became world-famous for writing and interpreting thought-provoking, risqué or downright dirty songs. Serge Gainsbourg is a one-of-a-kind artist who spent his lifetime challenging what was acceptable in mainstream music. In their days,’ Je t’aime moi non plus’, ‘Bonny & Clyde’, ’69 année érotique’ and many others raised a few eyebrows and turned the unshaven, smoke-saturated singer into an unlikey pop-star.
But these celebrated hits only tell a small part of the story. The 5-CD boxset Le Cinéma de Serge Gainsbourg digs much deeper and brings back to light his shadowy work as a soundtrack composer. Gainsbourg’s uneasy relationship with cinema starts in 1959, with L’Eau à la bouche, a forgotten french film that greatly benefits from the jazz-tinged music that Gainsbourg wrote with arranger Alain Goraguer, and stands as a blueprint for his early-sixties work. A time of great change that Gainsbourg did not really anticipate. Strangely enough, he never crossed paths with the Nouvelle Vague or the avant-garde of cinema, but with directors and actors of yesteryear, like Georges Lautner, Jean Gabin or Michel Simon.
But, by the mid-sixties, always knowing where the wind blew, Serge Gainsbourg started to look abroad, and particularly towards the United Kingdom. With a little help from Jane Birkin, he totally changed the way he composed music and traded the jazzy, rive gauche chanson for the pop sound of the British scene. But while he loved the hip, mod production of the day, he never imitated them and filtered these new influences through his own artistic aspirations.
That’s what we hear at the beginning of CD 3 with the immortal ‘Requiem pour un con (Requiem for a jerk)’, written for Le Pacha in 1968. With this only song, Gainsbourg anticipated the breakbeat, trip-hop and French touch scenes of the 90’s ! And it’s just the tip of the iceberg. With ‘Psychaténie’, composed for the same film, Gainsbourg takes a sitar and smashes it against a background of frenetic percussions.
And hardcore fans are in for a great surprise. A recently-discovered soundtrack for the obscure André Cayatte film Les Chemins de Katmandou (1969) shows Gainsbourg pushing harder, as on ‘Transe party des hashishiens’, which sounds roughly like Black Sabbath jamming with Funkadelic. These crazy highs reach a peak with the tribal and experimental soundtrack for La Horse (1970), a very traditional film completely transcended by its music.
What can you do after going weirder and weirder ? Take a step back and follow the trends. By disc 4, Gainsbourg explores the standardized world of 70’s erotic films, with soundtracks written for the forgettable Madame Claude or Goodbye Emmanuelle.
Like the films themselves, the songs seemed to come from the same mold : bass, electric piano, and, sometimes, whispered vocals, But while quality is occasionally present (‘Yesterday, yes a day’ performed by Jane Birkin, ‘Dieu fumeur de Havane’, by Catherine Deneuve), his work becomes more and more derivative and careless (the infamous, formulaïc ‘Sea, sex & sun’), paving the way for the dreaded 80’s and their punishing robotic rhythms, slapped bass and kitsch sound effects (‘Le Physique et le figuré’), A wasteland where emotion is banished, except on the father/daughter duet, Charlotte for Ever, (1986) where their fragiles voices soar above the icy production, It was quite a trip !!
Le Cinéma de Serge Gainsbourg is out now from Universal France