Original Score

Serge Gainsbourg, Michel Colombier - Jean Aurel

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In the 1960s, Serge Gainsbourg was operating as an all-around renaissance man. Gainsbourg was already well known as a singer, less renowned as a composer even though he wrote most of the material he recorded, and was picking up frequent work as an actor -- mostly in second-string roles -- in films and on French TV. As good as Gainsbourg was on his own, he seemed to flourish in collaborations; his most famous international hit, "Je t'aime de non plus," was a collaboration with then wife Jane Birkin. In 1964, Gainsbourg met composer Michel Colombier, whose talent was honed not in the conservatories, concert halls, or even in film studios, but at the electronic music studio of ORTF in Paris. For the next four years, Gainsbourg and Colombier collaborated extensively on film soundtracks, only to see most of the work end up on the cutting room floor in one way or another. In 1968, Gainsbourg and Colombier went separate ways -- Colombier to creating lush and thoroughly transparent string scoring to some of Hollywood's most indifferent and crass commercial projects, and Gainsbourg to recognition as perhaps France's greatest postmodern songwriter and one of her most notorious reprobates. Although Gainsbourg was awarded onscreen credit for composing the track for Jean Aurel's Manon 70 (1968) -- a cheeky and shallow update on the Manon Lescaut story starring Catherine Deneuve -- in reality this was a Gainsbourg/Colombier collaboration that had been rejected, only a tiny snippet of which was used in the finished film. With the passage of four decades and both Gainsbourg and Colombier gone, one wouldn't expect anyone even to go looking for the tapes of their original, rejected tracks for Manon 70. However, through some miracle here it is, the whole original track, which forms the basis for Universal Music Jazz France's Manon 70, Vol. 47 in its Écoutez le Cinéma! series.

In order to fill out the disc to a decent length, Universal Music France have gone into the vaults and extracted a wealth of other Gainsbourg/Colombier material, all of it rare and practically none of it released, or even originally used, within its intended context. One score that did make the cut was Si j'etais un Espion (1967; also known as "Breakdown" or "If I Were a Spy"), the first feature by Get Out Your Handkerchiefs director Bernard Blier. Blier remembers the music track more fondly than he does the movie, and it's easy to see why: the score is a distinctly French take on John Barry's music for James Bond, but it isn't in the least cynical or satirical; it's quite serious in purpose and expertly scored. Le Jardinier d'Arguenteuil (1966) was a very left-field project for Gainsbourg/Colombier, being a lighthearted comedy vehicle for beloved French actor Jean Gabin; the version heard here was cut together for a Philips single that never happened. All of it is in a piquant idiom well-suited to Gabin's comic persona. The most striking material here, though, is the track for Anna (1967), a hip, youth-oriented TV movie popular enough to spawn an album of its own, though none of the music heard here was on it as this is the original track. Among the cues is "Ballet des soupirs" (Ballet of Sighs), which is literally that; a grindingly slow pageant of heavy breathing scored to luscious strings, clattery electric guitars, a vacuum cleaner turning on and off, and ample use of negative space.

One might be tempted to listen to this disc with the idea of figuring how much of it belongs to Gainsbourg and how much to Colombier. In the case of the front title to Manon 70, it is clear that Gainsbourg is trying to transform the theme into a pop song for himself, but the balance of work is shared right down the middle. One hears Gainsbourg nervously pecking out a melody with one finger on the piano -- an obvious and recognizable trademark in his work -- and shortly after, a more deft hand takes the same theme and transforms it into something more elegant; that's Colombier. One hears sweeping strings enacting a solemn mood (Colombier) suddenly arc over an awkward progression, like a steeplechase horse caught on the fence (Gainsbourg).

Universal Music Jazz France's Manon 70 represents a major discovery in French film music of the '60s, and seems more relevant in 2008 than it might have had it been issued in 1968. There is a caveat; it doesn't hurt at all to know a little about the French music of that era to enjoy the album; otherwise, it just might sound like weird easy listening music, which it is not. However, Gainsbourg's legions of devotees will literally flip over this release, and anyone with a psychotronic taste in film music really ought to check it out.

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