Des de Moor
Press Cuttings: Chanson

French Cultural Studies Volume 16 Number 2 June 2005
Jacques Brel drawn by Robb Johnson

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well: Anglophone adaptations of French Chanson

Des de Moor's work and translations, as well as his views on chanson, have been discussed in some detail in an academic paper appearing in the journal French Cultural Studies. The paper, by Dr Chris Tinker, a lecturer in French at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, uses de Moor's translations of the songs of Belgian chansonnier Jacques Brel as an exemplar of one of three distinct approaches to English adaptations of Brel, "situated within an alternative, if not oppositional Anglophone cabaret tradition."

Tinker's paper sets out to discuss "some of the key competing practices and discourses around the process of adaptation." The three approaches it identifies are firstly, adaptations aimed at the commercial, mainstream audience, exemplified by Rod McKuen; secondly, the alternative, oppositional approach exemplified both by de Moor and the musical revue from the USA, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris; and thirdly the work of Scott Walker and Marc Almond.

Tinker observes that while academics have studied English-language adaptations of French films in some detail, as well as looking at chanson in its original French cultural context, so far Anglophone versions of French song have not been considered. The "middle of the road" adaptations of Brel by Rod McKuen are often dismissed as offering little insight into their source text, but viewed comparitively they illustrate some of the specificities of chanson: "the foregrounding of lyrics; the honesty and intensity of emotion;" and a readiness to tackle taboo subjects such as death.

It is these qualities, says the author, that have attracted alternative, oppositional Anglophone songwriters to Brel's work. For example the 1968 show Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, with adaptations by Mort Shuman and Eric Blau, and the 1975 film version by Québecois director Denis Héroux that followed, use Brel works to explore themes of interest to the North American counterculture such as opposition to US imperialism and the Vietnam war, and, in Héroux's film, criticism of the hypocrisy of the Catholic church.

Tinker situates de Moor's work within a similar cultural tradition. "Moor [sic]", says Tinker, "is particularly critical of British resistance, even hostility, to 'pithy, literate and emotionally honest popular song', arguing that this is partly symptomatic of anti-intellectualism and philistinism."

He continues: "On the whole, the Anglophone musical theatre and cabaret tradition exemplified by Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris and Pirate Jenny's tend to view French chanson as a minority genre, contributing to the formation of what can be broadly termed a US or UK alternative culture or even counterculture. Exponents of this kind of adaptation tend to express something of an inferiority complex vis-à-vis their more mature French counterparts, viewing their own domestic mainstream culture, rather pessimistically, as deficient. As a result, they effectively reinforce the traditional division between high/serious and mass/popular culture. Des de Moor in particular adopts a particularly oppositional stance towards the dominant domestic culture, both in his stage performances and in his various media appearances as a cultural commentator".

Tinker concludes by considering the work of Scott Walker and Marc Almond, and recounts Walker's censorship struggles at the BBC when he attempted to incorporate some of Brel's songs on taboo subjects into his late 1960s television shows. Almond's Brel adaptations, admits Tinker, appeal to a relatively limited audiences, though Almond did achieve a UK Top 20 hit in 1991 with his disco version of 'La Chanson de Jacky' produced by Trevor Horn. Almond "has actively resisted categorising himself exclusively and definitively either as a mainstream performer or as an alternative cabaret artist," writes Tinker. Both performers have to some extent transcended the binary opposition of popular and high/serious culture "and in so doing succeed in capturing something of the inherent postmodern qualities of French chanson - a 'popular' yet 'serious' art form."

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