In recent years French cinema has been awash with biopics of what might loosely be grouped pop cultural icons of the Fifth Republic, with the subjects so far treated including Édith Piaf, Serge Gainsbourg, bank robber Jacques Mesrine and comedian Coluche. Piaf aside, none of these ever had any cultural currency outside the francophone world during their lifetime. Gainsbourg has gathered a posthumous cult following in the English-speaking world but while living he was little more than a curiosity, known only for recording a mildly scandalous lounge number and drunkenly proposing sex to Whitney Houston live on TV. Coluche’s brilliant quick-fire stand-up that mixed burlesque and music was too shuttered by language and cultural context to ever translate while Mesrine enjoyed fleeting notoriety during a brief criminal exile in Quebec, though the Quebecois were never quite as enamoured of his romantic legend as the French were. The latest icon to enjoy the biopic treatment is arguably the biggest of them all but whose international renown is similarly non-existent — Claude François.
Cloclo/My Way - the trailer:
‘Cloclo’, as he was affectionately (and proprietorially) known, sold 67 million records during a career that spanned 16 years from 1962 till his premature death, at the age of 39, in 1978. If The Beatles were bigger than Jesus, it is no exaggeration to say that in France, Claude François was bigger than either. His success, along with that of his great rival Johnny Hallyday, is emblematic of the French preference in the 1960s for music in the local language. This resulted in both those artists and many others, such as Brigitte Bardot and France Gall, recording US pop standards in French — as did The Beatles themselves before they got too big to have to bother about catering to the French market. Stylistically geared towards rock n’roll from the English-speaking world, unlike the chanson française of an earlier generation, Claude François and Johnny Hallyday would nonetheless never succeed in making a name for themselves in the ‘cultural motherland’. For François, a man who, unlike Hallyday or Eddy Mitchell, refused to shed his quintessentially French name in favour of an American-style moniker, that was to be his perennial goal.
This is something that the film, Cloclo, foregrounds, most explicitly in its choice of English-language title — My Way. For that is the song by which Claude François indirectly left his greatest mark on the English-speaking world (and much further beyond). It was adapted by Paul Anka from ‘Comme d’habitude’, written by François with Gilles Thibault and Jacques Revaux in 1967, and recorded by François’ idol Frank Sinatra the following year. Sinatra makes fleeting appearances in the film, more distant and unattainable to the French hero than he himself is to his own screaming teenage fans. The climax of the film (and one suspects, François’ career) is when he receives the first pressing of Sinatra’s record after a concert in Brussels. Later he has a chance encounter with Sinatra in a London hotel where he imagines Old Blue Eyes thanks him. The craving for validation from America is clear and was something he was working towards at the time of his death. He had just played the Royal Albert Hall in January 1978 and was about to embark on a trip to the States where a promotional documentary on him was planned. It was the height of disco, something which, like many a musical genre before it, he had taken to ably and it wasn’t inconceivable that he might have put a dent in the US market.
That is, if he did not die suddenly on the 11th of March 1978, electrocuted while trying to fix a faulty lightbulb as he stood in a water-filled bathtub. It’s a tragicomic demise viewed as so improbable by many in France that more scurrilous rumours abound of how he met his end. The film deftly incorporates François’ notorious perfectionism and attention to detail — and a possible obsessive compulsive disorder — into the incident that causes his death. In fact, My Way, directed by Florent-Emilio Siri, which is a largely by-the-book biography, portrays François as a horrendously self-obsessed, neurotic megalomaniac. It’s a side of him that has long been alleged, not least because he hid the existence of his second son for six years so as not to dull his appeal to his female audience. Jérémie Renier, the Belgian actor who is one of several to have sprung to fame from the inauspiciously low-key surrounds of the Dardenne brothers’ films, is excellent as François, a pint-sized ball of nerves and pent-up violence. It also helps that he looks uncannily like the man himself, even down to his slightly oversized head.
The Valentino-esque scenes of mourning in March 1978, following Claude François' death:
It’s easy to dismiss Claude François’ music as kitsch, and it is true he had neither the spark of genius of Gainsbourg or Jacques Dutronc nor the intellectual verve of Renaud or Jacques Brel, but even kitsch can leave something of worth. François’ music shamelessly pilfered everything he encountered — there is a great epiphanic scene in the film where he goes to his first Otis Redding concert and promptly reinvents himself as a high-kicking soul singer with his female backing singers The Clodettes — and he was a businessman with fingers in multiple pies, though bankrupt at the time of his death. He was also a pioneer of the promotional video. His music might be disposable pap, but it’s well produced enough to long outlive its disposability.
The recent biopics all lend themselves easily to sociological readings, given how they span a clearly defined period in French history — les trentes glorieuses — that was itself a crucible of so much social change. We see little of that history in My Way, other than one event which traumatised Claude François and drove his father to an early grave. That was the Suez crisis which forced the Franco-Italian François family from Egypt, where the father, Aimé, was a senior controller on the Canal. They relocated to France, ruined — the young Claude only 17 years old; his musical career was driven as much by economic necessity as by childhood dreams. (Interestingly, another French disco icon, Dalida, of whom a biopic is, of course, in the works, was also of Italian-Egyptian background). But if My Way is particularly illustrative of the era it covers, it is of the growing influence of Anglophone popular culture in French society and the unsure reactions of even its enthusiastic consumers and practitioners. The film has been a big hit in France but, as with Claude François’ music itself, it’s not quite clear what reception it will receive abroad.