There aren’t many films of the great Belgian singer/songwriter Jacques Brel in concert, let alone color films, so the discovery of a Scopitone production of Brel performing his classic “Madeleine” is a must-see for anyone who loves this artist’s music.
The Scopitones were a forerunner of music videos that played on special jukeboxes that projected films. They were briefly popular in the 1960s, though it seemed the French enjoyed this entertainment outlet more than other people.
In “Madeleine,” Brel sings directly to the camera in the guise of the frustrated lover who waits for the elusive title character, hoping she will arrive for a date. Brel begins with a bouquet of flowers in his hand and a trenchcoat draped over his arm. Then the scene switches to an evening setting (the background is dark and neon shapes hang on the wall behind him, suggesting stars and signs). Brel is in his trenchcoat and is soaked from the rain. His flowers are wilting. Next, he is on a bench the day after. The rain is gone and his flowers are dead. Finally, he gets a whiff of enthusiasm that Madeleine will eventually show up and his flowers come back to life for another go-round.
As production values go, “Madeleine” has none. It was shot entirely in a studio in what appears to have been a lunch break. Brel, normally a wildly animated performer, is more subdued than usual – but he manages to come very close to the camera, as if to plant his big toothy mouth on the lens for a mad kiss.
But as a singer, Brel was peerless in capturing emotional tumult and tension and his rendition is a wild riot of delusional highs and rueful lows. “Madeleine” captures him at a peak of brilliance, which more than compensates for the cheapjack settings where he is performing. Brel fans with broadband will enjoy this rare offering of the legendary performer.