If any theatrical property seemed to be an unlikely choice for cinematic adaptation, it would be “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.” A plotless four-person musical revue based on the songs of Belgian balladeer Jacques Brel, the show opened Off-Broadway in 1968 and quickly became a staple of smaller, intimate theaters and cabaret venues. In creating a film version, however, the simple and charming concept behind the stage production was happily tossed away and a completely new vision was put into place. The resulting film turned into one of the most bewildering and gleefully insane productions captured on camera…and in the process, the film accidentally foretold the coming of the MTV-style of music production.
The film of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” opens on a dark and rainy Parisian night. Three strangers — a cab driver (Mort Schuman, who translated Brel’s music into English for the Off-Broadway show), a soldier (Joe Masiell in a decidedly non-military shag hairstyle) and a meek woman (Elly Stone) — find themselves in a theater with a collection of hippies and a few assorted weirdos. Jacques Brel himself is sitting in a balcony, squinting with enigmatic indifference. A puppet show begins, with a trio of marionettes resembling the three aforementioned strangers, while newsreel footage from years past flicker on a screen. The soundtrack blares the Brel song “Marathon,” highlighting the highs and lows of decades gone by. Needless to say, the unsuspecting trio are stunned at what they are witnessing. After the song, the theater is suddenly empty and the threesome venture backstage, where they experience several surreal incidents including the collapse of gigantic plaster hand in a drop from the ceiling to the floor. A dreadful blaring noise goes off and the confused trio escape to a beach, where the soldier races across the sand and kicks the siren creating the ruckus, causing it to explode.
In case you are wondering about the events in the previous paragraph and their connection with the music of Jacques Brel…well, to borrow a line from Brel: no, you are not alone. “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” spins totally out of control with a skein of music video-type vignettes which dramatize the songs from the show…and it often seems that director Denis Heroux never listened to the music, as the on-screen action is frequently at odds with the soundtrack. This is most obvious in “Timid Frieda,” Brel’s haunting tale of a pathetic teenage runaway finding a new life on the streets. In the film, Frieda has more self-confidence than a prize-winning used car salesman and she is at least 10 years beyond the age of the girl described in the song! Later on, the ballad “Marieke” is stuffed with images of a red ball bouncing off a cliff and Elly Stone (wearing a suit and tie) chasing a girl around a cemetery. For a song which details the carnage brought on Belgium during World War I, this makes for very unusual viewing. Capping the inanity is Brel’s sole musical turn, singing “Ne Me Quitte Pas” while the camera zooms in for a tight close-up. However, in this case a tight close-up goes the extra length and the song concludes with the screen filled to the max with Brel’s eyeballs.
Despite the lapses into silliness, “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” actually works fairly well. The music, of course, is timeless and runs the emotional gamut from giddy highs to grim lows, tapping all nerves in between. And there are actually times when the images and the music work in perfect sync: “The Middle Class,” a glorious slam at the bourgeois, is a happy celebration of inebriated contempt with a well-deserved comeuppance on the fault-finders, the wishful “Jackie” is given a full-throttle push by Mort Schuman in his mock-rueful dreams of impossible omnipotence. The cast keeps rather busy here, especially Joe Masiell, who literally runs amok every time he appears on-screen with a variety of eye-rolls and burst of vocal bravado. The true highlight, though, is Elly Stone’s rendition of “Carousel (La Valse a Mille Temps),” a kaleidoscopic inventory of a carnival wonderworld which is musically sped up recklessly to the point that it seems the poor woman is fighting off a nervous breakdown during the course of her performance.
“Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” was originally presented as part of the American Film Theatre series of motion pictures based on classic plays. As with the other films of that series, it has long been tied up in legal limbo regarding unanswered question of various rights. Until the question of the rights are untangled (which is not promised any time soon), “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” will remain alive and well but unseen and unappreciated by those seeking a truly different spin on musical cinema.