Writer and artist Joann Sfar’s directorial debut, Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life — about legendary French singer-songwriter, actor, and director Serge Gainsbourg — arrives on Blu-ray today. The film stars Eric Elmosnino as the chanteur and follows his beginnings in Nazi-occupied Paris, through his songwriting days in the 1960s, to his death in 1991. Gainsbourg’s prolific artistry helped propel the careers of vocalists like France Gall and Françoise Hardy — and he managed to make them stars while he was simultaneously recording his own brilliant albums. We’ve looked at several of the influential artist’s most memorable collaborations past the break. Tell us what pairings you’d include in the comments below.
Considered to be Gainsbourg’s most accomplished work, Histoire de Melody Nelson united the artist with legendary French composer Jean-Claude Vannier. The pseudo-autobiographical concept album (only 28 minutes long, even) tells the story of a middle-aged Gainsbourg having an accidental meeting (his car “crashes” into her bicycle) with a teenage Melody Nelson — and the obsessive affair that follows. The 1971 work fuses lavish orchestral arrangements, deep bass notes, and sensual lyrics — a stunning combination that has often been imitated.
Gainsbourg originally recorded the breathy track “Je t’aime moi non plus” with French screen star Brigitte Bardot while she was married to millionaire Gunther Sachs. Supposedly the actress begged Gainsbourg not to release the song since the simulated sexy sounds would have raised an eyebrow. (It was eventually released as a single in 1986.) Gainsbourg created a new version of the “ultimate love song” in 1971 — remastered with his then girlfriend, 22-year-old English actress Jane Birkin. Their relationship was surrounded by scandal, which the artist seemed to have an unhealthy attraction to. His infatuation and affection for Jane was very real, however, and became the inspiration behind his beloved masterpiece, Histoire de Melody Nelson.
Gainsbourg often claimed he was too ugly to perform some of the songs he wrote, yet the artist spent a lifetime performing with some of the most alluring women in the world. After launching a film career for himself, Gainsbourg met Brigitte Bardot in 1959 during the shooting of Michel Boisrond’s Voulez-vous danser avec moi?. He was reunited with the voluptuous bombshell in 1968 during rehearsals for a TV program about her life, and the unlikely duo started an intense, passionate affair. Gainsbourg wrote several songs for his new muse — including the immortal “Bonnie and Clyde.” “Comic Strip” and “Harley Davidson” also became hits, in part thanks to Bardot’s sexy costuming and the music videos’ creative set design.
Gainsbourg wrote the soundtrack for Godard darling Anna Karina’s 1968 television musical, Anna. In the film, the actress performs a duet, set to “Ne dis rien” with co-star Jean-Claude Brialy — whose character is actually named Serge (Gainsbourg has a part in the French comedy too, playing “Serge’s” friend). However, a more memorable rendition of the tender song is the slow dance version she created with Gainsbourg himself.
Gainsbourg’s 1984 album Love on the Beat boasts a controversial, but unforgettable single, “Lemon Incest.” Always a provocateur, Gainsbourg performed the song with his then twelve-year-old daughter, Charlotte. The video — featuring father and daughter partially clothed on a bed — further stirred controversy, but lyrics like these really tightened the noose: “The love that we will never make together, is the most beautiful, the most violent, the most pure, the most heady.” Even if you write this one off as totally bizarre, the tune is pretty damn catchy — and there’s something intriguing about Charlotte’s trembling, adolescent delivery.
Gainsbourg’s creative relationship with yé-yé icon France Gall is marked by many fascinatingly strange moments. They united at the prompting of Gall’s then manager, Gall’s star quickly rose, and Gainsbourg was along for the ride — helping to define the strongest moments of her career. Gall’s vocals weren’t particularly powerful or unique, but she exuded youth and honesty, which made her works perfect for teenagers dreaming about love and life’s biggest mysteries. Paired with Gainsbourg’s clever wordplay, however, Gall’s tracks took on an entirely different meaning. Songs like “Poupée de cire, poupée de son” (“Doll of Wax, Doll of Bran/Sound”) insinuated that Gall was really just a singing doll that could be controlled by a puppeteer. Her first single with Gainsbourg “N’écoute pas les idoles” (“Don’t Listen to the Idols”) essentially pleads with listeners not to pay attention to the idols of their time (something she quickly became). It was the duo’s collaboration on “Les sucettes” (“Lollipops”), however, that really crossed the line for Gall. The singer’s naïve performance paired with Gainsbourg’s oral sex double entendre completely threw her career off-track. Eventually, their increasingly strange collaborations led to the end of their working relationship.
Gainsbourg wrote one of iconic French singer Françoise Hardy’s most popular songs. “Comment te dire adieu?” is an adaptation of American track “It Hurts to say Goodbye,” but Gainsbourg put a late ’60s pop spin on the song allowing Hardy’s playful and sometimes melancholic tones to shine.
Brooding “gentleman rocker of French chanson” Alain Bashung had a career that in many ways mirrored his idol, Gainsbourg. Their collaborative 1982 album defined several of their shared interests and tastes — right down to the biting, but lyrical, witticisms Gainsbourg is known for and an anti-commercial stance. Play Blessures wasn’t well received by critics upon release, but the textured, experimental work — that toys with everything from coldwave synth to ultra minimal arrangements — has since become a legendary favorite in many circles.