Friday, March 15, 2013

La vie en rose: Edith Piaf in Paris

Piaf is now known globally to an entire new generation thanks to the 2007 French film La vie en rose, for which Marion Cotillard received the Oscar and the Golden Globe. It is a tremendous film and Cotillard's performance is magnificent. I highly recommend it.

Piaf herself is also magnificent. And confusing, and mysterious, and compelling.

Born in 1915, Piaf lived the first part of her life in Paris in the 20th arrondissment -- Belleville.She died in 1963 at the age of 47 having lived a passionate and troubling life.

This is a clip of Piaf singing "La vie en rose," considered by many to be her signature song:

As an alternative, here is Mirielle Mathieu singing the same song nearly 50 years later. Matthieu is also a fine French singer, with a completely different style.

From 1929 to 1935 Piaf sang in the streets of Paris as a street performer, at first with her biological father, who was a street acrobat. After she parted ways with him, Piaf performed in the 18th, 19th and 20th arrondissements as well as the suburbs of Paris. In 1935 she was discovered by the club owner and impresario Louis Leplee, who supposedly gave her the signature style of stage presence, costuming (the little black dress) and gestures she used for the rest of her life.

Piaf performed in clubs in Paris until World War II and began changing her street image. She met and made friends with influential people.

During the war, Piaf lived in Marseilles, but performed in Paris at Nazi-sponsored events. She also claimed to be a member of the Resistance and to have aided those targeted by the Nazis to escape in various ways.

After the war, Piaf was an international celebrity. She aided several actors and singers to fame, including Yves Montand and Charles Aznevour. Her love life was complicated: she had one child who died with an early lover, then later married after the war twice. The great love of her life was boxer Marcel Cerdan, who was killed in an airplane crash after little more than a year of their relationship.

Piaf is buried in Pere Lachaise cemetary.

One of the quirkiest museums in Paris is dedicated to her. This article in The Guardian reviews it clearly. This Time Out review gives another angle.

This article is a kind of virtual tour of Piaf's Paris. If one wanted to walk in the singer's shoes, these are great resources. The fact is, her voice was a treasure, and her life was the kind of messy, troubled voyage we've come to expect of great artists, espeically women artists perhaps... but it is also sad and ridiculous on some level.

From another direction, Piaf's story is the story of Paris in the first half of the 20th century. Her movement from abandoned child to street performer to singing star is also the story of Paris's own history and geography, even to her interment in the city's most famous cemetary, perhaps ironically located in the same arrondissement where she was born.

Her great legacy is the gorgeous recordings we have and, as in the clip, the sense of Piaf as a performer. It is clear that she loved performing and felt more alive while singing than at any other time.

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