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Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris

cast: Jacques Brel, Elly Stone, and Mort Shuman

director: Denis Heroux

93 minutes (15) 1975
inD / Fremantle DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Tom Matic
As the collection of excerpts on the impressively side-burned Ely Landau's 1974 promotional reel for the American Film Theatre's second season suggests, the repertoire of this self-styled 'National Theatre on film' runs the gamut from the naturalism of Eugene O'Neill to the absurdism of Eugene Ionesco. The AFT's premiere season included many classics of 20th century theatre from Bertolt Brecht, Harold Pinter, Jean Genet and John Osborne. In fact, judging by this offering from the second season, it seems they ran out of material.

Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris is not so much a play as a theatrical compendium of the legendary Belgian singer songwriter's songs. As a result, the music is rarely less than wonderful, except when rendered in the excessively sharp and shrill tones of the hatchet faced chanteuse Elly Stone. Of the other two singers, the most watchable is Mort Shuman, a shambling teddy bear-like figure in a beret, who sings some of Brel's best-known songs, such as Jackie, Mathilde and The Port Of Amsterdam, with the requisite drunken swagger and bitter exuberance. During the latter song, we see the songwriter himself, whose gaunt face also adorns posters in previous location scenes, drinking in the bar. The film then cuts to a seascape and haunting theremin music, before returning to a close-up of Brel's eyes welling with tears, as he intones a broken rendition of Ne Me Quitte Pas. This is definitely the highlight of the film both musically and cinematically, although I also enjoyed the powerful version of Next, beginning with a deliberately tuneless monotone building to a scream of alienation and despair, as befits this characteristically sardonic tale of a young soldier popping his cherry in a sordid army brothel.

The main thing that mars the film is the juvenile drama school antics of the chorus. The staging and the links between the songs vary between the poetically apt and the heavy-handedly symbolic. However there is a certain charm in the literalism of some scenes, such as Taxi Cab, in which Mort Shuman's taxi driver imagines the sexual dalliances of the untouchable object of his affections, and Funeral Tango, in which Shuman is confronted by his own corpse singing from his coffin. On the whole, the film is best enjoyed as a curiosity, and for Jacques Brel's cameo appearance.
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