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Mr Lucky
Music Reviews

An Appreciation by
Robert Long

When we wrote our piece on French music sometime back, we knew we were neglecting the great Yves Montand. But our point of view as a tourist was much too simple to help explain why Montand's role in French popular culture is so important. Guest contributor Robert Long helps set the story straight and offers some wise musical suggestions as well.

 

Most Americans think of Yves Montand when they think of him at all, I suspect, as a sort of Charles Boyer with street smarts. "Actor, right? Married to what's her name-Simone Signoret, yeah! And wasn't he the guy who had the fling with Marilyn Monroe?"

Well, that's close, but not close enough. It would be nearer the core of who he was to think of him as a song and dance man-one of the great ones. Closer yet would be to approach him as a man with a ravenous appetite for life and the discipline to focus aspects of that life into finely crafted music hall turns.

The life he led was very French, even if it did begin in Italy. And it was very . . . well, un-American. His father, a staunch Communist for most of his life, left Italy when Montand (then known as Ivo Livy) was a small boy. Had he stayed, it's likely that his father's life would have been forfeited to a fascist brother-in-law. The family settled in Marseille and became French citizens.

It's paradoxical that the young Montand should have been bedazzled by Hollywood and have received an offer to go there just as U.S. attitudes toward Communists were hardening. In the end, his father's devotion to the Cause saved young Yves. He signed a studio contract without reading it. By the time he perceived that, far from opening a door to stardom it shut him up in a studio system that stifled many a budding talent, it was too late. But rumblings from the House Unamerican Activities Committee had alerted the Immigration Service that they might get their hands slapped if "Reds" were permitted entry, and Montand's connections guaranteed that he would not get a U.S. visa until years later.

Unlike his father, or even those American Communists who stood with the workers in interwar labor disputes, Montand never seems to have been highly politicized, though he certainly had a sense of identity with the "little man" and a gnawing devotion to the cause of social justice in general. And in France, particularly in the aftermath of World War II and the horrors of occupation, that often meant that you became a Communist.

The word -the concept- is very differently loaded in France than it is in the United States. North America, by and large, first learned of Communism at the time of the Russian Revolution. It was brutal, exotic, anarchistic, threatening, and largely incomprehensible. To a Frenchman it was none of the above. Communism-or at any rate socialism-had been around since the early 1800s, when the pamphlets of the Conte de St-Simon had explored a heady Utopia where artists and other visionaries mapped out a social and economic order, ultimately for the benefit of all citizens. Republicanism and socialism were largely interchangeable, indeed; the former was merely the political route to the latter.

It was natural, therefore, for intellectuals in general and artists in particular to pick up the red banner when France was again free. Much was made in the U.S. of Pablo Picasso's turning Communist, but he was only the most visible of the many men and women who, in sincere hopes they could help create a better world, did likewise.

Among the more influential of those who did so was the poet Jacques Prévert. His greatest work, perhaps, was the screenplay for Les Enfants du paradis, generally mistranslated in English as Children of Paradise, though the play on "paradis" as both the abode of the gods and the topmost balcony of a theater-"the gods," as it is called in England-thus gets lost. Prévert clearly meant to address the commonest of the common people, who populate "the gods," with this screenplay, and he set the costume drama in the period of the St-Simonists' greatest popularity, the reign Louis-Philippe (1830-1848).

The movie was filmed during the occupation and under the eye of the German sensor, yet certain characters seem clearly to represent the implacably heartless, crafty sort of German commandant one imagines hautily pacing the "grands boulevards." Perhaps its status as an historical drama was what lulled the sensor into insouciance, but it is full of object lessons for modern Frenchmen, and full of the hope of a better and more just world to come once Paris would be free.

Prévert and Montand met when the latter was still in the second phase of his career. He had begun in Marseille and come north to Paris even before the Germans had left. He was already a resounding success, but not the true star he was to become, partly because of his passionate and professional association with Edith Piaf, who in important ways dominated that second phase.

Prévert had written a filmplay called Les Portes de la nuit (The Portals of the Night) to star Marlene Dietrich and Jean Gabin. In the event, neither star participated, and Marcel Carné, who directed, decided to use two unknowns in the main parts. Montand was his choice to replace Gabin. The film was Montand's first experience of a full-scale film role, and given his fixation with Hollywood he must have been devastated when the movie proved a flop.

At the same time, however, it gave him the two songs with which he was to be most closely associated throughout his music hall career: Les Enfants qui s'aiment and Les Feuilles mortes. The latter, particularly in translation as Autumn Leaves, was also a big hit for others, but it is with Montand that it is most intimately associated. Paradoxically, however, someone else got to sing both on the soundtrack. It was only after the film's release that Montand made them his own.

The music of both was written by Joseph Kosma, who also was responsible for many other settings of Prévert poems. They formed a unique triumvirate: Prévert's poetic invocation of the particular, with words that glittered and mused; Kosma's ability to find and develop the intrinsic lilt of the words; Montand's perfectionism in moulding sound, timing, and expression into an engrossing articulation.

There are two CDs that illustrate this phase of Montand's career and others that illuminate what came before and after. They aren't always easy to find in North America, and I can't be sure which are available where. Some may be listed by several importers or distributors but actually available from none. I'll try to give you some clues as we go along.

Yves Montand - Battling Joe
EPM ("Songs from France") 995892 (1998)

One of Montand's earliest hits was Battling Joe, about a prize fighter, and this CD contains all the numbers that launched his career: Dans les Plaines du Far-West, Luna Park, Moi j'm'en fous, and the rest. There also are some songs from his Edith Piaf period. One of them, Mais qu'est-ce que j'ai, with text by Piaf, appeared as something of a theme song even late in his career.

The booklet gives a nice, if short, biographical sketch in both French and English, but it offers no clue as to the provenance of the recordings. I assume they must have been among his earliest commercial 78-rpm discs. The sound is consistent with such a source, subjected to the usual digital denoising. That is to say that it is variable; at its best it is surprisingly fresh when you focus on the source, but relatively unimpressive when you compare it to the best of Montand's recordings.

Never mind, these are treasurable mementos of budding greatness. We even get a bit of his tap-dancing-the only Montand dance to survive into the CD era, so far as I'm aware. But above all we get the irresistible Montand charm, caught while it was still a-borning. And it has an ebullient rowdiness at times that you'll find in equal degree nowhere else in the Montand legacy.

Yves Montand - A Paris
DRG 5574 (undated)

Vintage Montand, drawn from the 78s he recorded for Odéon in the 1950s, includes his original (1949) recording of Les Feuilles mortes. If there is an aplomb and assurance that the previous offering can't quite claim, there also is a little less spontaneity. It is the work of an entertainer who has arrived.

DRG gives a New York address (though the booklet was printed in Canada) but says that its recordings are distributed by Koch International in both countries. The mastering, to my ear, is marginally less successful than the EPM, given that the originals should have been more carefully recorded in view of Montand's reputation when they were made. There is some rather boxy sound with a bright edge, some minor but unconvincing reverb, some oddities that may be artifacts of denoising.

Still, it's a very satisfying collection, and at 55 minutes plus, definitely more generous than the EPM. Since this was the only part of Montand's career (film aside) I was familiar for many years, perhaps I make too much of it when I say it is the CD I'd choose if I were to limit myself to only one. But why do that?

Montand chant Prévert
Canadian Philips 838 681-2 (undated)
Philips/Mercury France 838 681-2 (1998)

In addition to the individual Prévert songs Montand recorded for Odéon, there was a full LP's worth recorded by Phonogram in France in 1962. The recording, now the property of the sprawling Polygram conglomerate and maintained by its Philips division, has been mastered twice for CD. A conventional 16-bit version was and is available from Canadian Philips. The more recent European remastering claims more sophisticated digital technology and a "special" album-plus a premium price-but I can find little to recommend it above its predecessor.

Let's see, the cut list is easier to read on the back of the new packaging, and the color is better balanced in the cover photograph. Um . . . there must be something else! Yes, perhaps the sound is a mite fuller and cleaner on the remastering. But its album doesn't even make a pretense at notes. Never mind, the old version's "booklet" simply repeats the cut list inside. Tut, Philips-you could easily have done better than that.

How many North Americans have read one word about either Prévert or Kosma, let alone Charles Verger, who wrote the music to one of the songs? This is a lovely collection, and an important one. When I last checked, Prévert's poetry was still in print and still enjoyed by a wide public, it seems. Even if Montand has become a household word (which I doubt), there's lots that remains to be said.

Montand always loved jazz, and Bob Castella, his orchestra leader (and, I assume, arranger for this disc) came to him from a jazz background. There is a lot more jazz in these arrangements than in the ones they recorded for Odéon. But there's also some pretty lush string work on occasion. In other words, the jazz and the lushness are both rather skin-deep, employed as theatrical devices, rather than as imperatives of intrinsic style. Still, the recording is genuine stereo, but the earlier ones were not.

Yves Montand - Les fuilles mortes
The Entertainers CD 315 (1994)

This is a live recording of one of the mature Montand's blockbuster nights in the theater somewhere in the world. Who knows (or cares) precisely when or where. There seems to be a number of such recordings, some issued on LP more or less at the time of the live performance, some cached away and made public on CD only recently. I doubt that this particular issue is still in print, but there are sure to be others.

The cover photo on the "booklet" (which in this case is totally blank inside) leaves no doubt that this is no longer the Montand of the '50s and '60s. He is utterly assured, utterly polished, working the audience the way he might fondle a lover's breast. When he whispers, you can almost see the pencil spot on his face, the rest of the house in deepest darkness except for an Exit sign here and there. A legendary performer consummately plying his trade.

So why do I like the earlier recordings better? Well, because they (most of them) are not live, for one thing. You are one-on-one with a charming performer, who is doing his numbers just for you. I like that. For another, his mature art is just a little too pat, too calculated. Some French critics complained of that from the beginning. The verve and elan of the earlier Montand belie the charge, but by the end I think it was justified, at least a little. It's a question of how you want to remember Montand, and for me the young Montand is unforgettable.

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