04 April 2011

Le Retour de Johnny

For hardcore fans — roughly 99.44 percent of the French-speaking world, according to my unofficial estimate — there’s a special sweetness to Johnny Hallyday’s comeback, now underway. That’s because it’s not only a professional comeback (four years ago, the singer announced that he would stop touring) but also a physical and perhaps even a spiritual comeback. Hallyday’s health problems in 2009 brought him to death’s door — and to a Los Angeles hospital, where he received treatment superior to that which he got in France.* (He’s suing his French doctor.) France has been forced to confront the mortality of its favorite idol, and everyone is now resolved to make the most of him, while he’s still around. Carpe Hallydiem.

To put it mildly, Hallyday is a cultural phenomenon with few rivals. His blue-eyed, lupine gaze surveys the entire nation from the vantage of photos on café walls; he turns up in television advertising and major motion pictures; and his voice is never farther than the nearest radio. His concerts sell out France’s largest stadiums. His every move and utterance are faithfully recorded by the press, and his comeback has been reported exhaustively on TV news programs and celebrated in an evening-length variety show in prime time last month.

And yet Johnny Hallyday is virtually unknown outside France. He’s often described as “the French Elvis,” and aptly so: he popularized rock’n’roll in France, and much of his early career, especially, was slavishly patterned after the King’s. (It’s not by accident that Hallyday assiduously cultivates ties to the U.S., wearing cowboy gear, riding a Harley Davidson, and keeping a home in California, as few other Frenchmen would dream of doing.) But global fame — or anything like Elvis’ international stature — eludes him.

Hallyday can be quite a good actor. He’s seen here with the great Jean Rochefort, in Patrice Leconte’s wistful, quirky bromance,
L’Homme du train (2003).

One excellent guide to understanding Johnny Hallyday came in a neat little film, released in 2006: Laurent Tuel’s Jean-Philippe. In that picture, a fan (Fabrice Luchini) wakes in a nightmare universe where Jean-Philippe Smet never became Johnny Hallyday. The fan thereupon takes it upon himself to seek out Smet and to train and guide him to become the superstar he was meant to be.**

Of course, most people outside France live in that universe where Hallyday isn’t a superstar. But look around Luchini’s shrine to Johnny in that movie — the memorabilia fills an entire room — or look at the new animated cartoon, Titeuf, in which Hallyday portrays himself, more or less, acting as a spiritual guide to the title character, a scrappy schoolboy. Many, many French people are absolutely religious about this man.

Jean-Philippe: Luchini in his Johnny shrine

Even those of us who are ordinarily indifferent to him (or, like me, largely ignorant of his work) must feel a little thrill these days when we hear his vibrant, somewhat nasal baritone. Unlike most other French artists, Hallyday sings à pleine voix, a hard-rocking roar that, more than ever, speaks of and to an irrepressible vitality in the French spirit.

If Johnny Hallyday’s return to the stage isn’t quite the Second Coming, it’s a sufficiently miraculous resurrection in the eyes of the faithful — just in time for Easter.

With Titeuf, on the big screen (in 3-D)
Titeuf is the hero of an immensely popular series of comic books
and star of an animated TV show, as well.

*NOTE: I hesitated to mention Hallyday’s experience with French and American doctors, because some of my relatives are going to throw it in my face the next time they want to talk about health care. But journalistic integrity wins out.

**In real life, Luchini is a serious Johnny fan who’s apparently memorized every one of Hallyday’s songs. Luchini — one of my favorite actors — generally comes across as something of a hyperactive bunny rabbit, so it’s quite entertaining to watch him mimic his idol.

Hallyday at the start of his career, around 1960.
More recent efforts to stay hip and to look like an American rocker include
an extensive leather wardrobe and some pretty freaky tattoos.


caspian santanca said...

johnny Hallyday waooowww

Kara said...

Great post, Bill! We should host a Johnny Hallyday film night when you return stateside. We just saw "Vengeance" recently and thought it was fantastic. Definitely worth a repeat viewing.