Edith Piaf: A double helping of “Little Sparrow”

A DVD and a 30th anniversary two-CD set illuminate the amazing, self-destructive life of French torch singer Edith Piaf.

A synopsis of Edith Piaf’s life, in 50 words or less: Abandoned as a baby, raised in a brothel. Was blind for four years, had miraculous recovery. Discovered singing in streets of Paris, implicated in a club owner’s murder. Multiple affairs, addictions and near-fatal car crashes. Dead at 47. Her signature song? Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien [No, I Regret Nothing].

And it’s taken the film industry this long to get around to thinking this might make a good film? Not just a good film, in fact—a great one.

La Vie en Rose tells this story beautifully, richly, unflinchingly. And actress Marion Cotillard is Edith Piaf, the Little Sparrow as the diminutive singer with the big voice was dubbed [indeed, Piaf was her stage name—in French slang, it means sparrow]. Here is how New York Times critic Stephen Holden describes her performance: “Marion Cotillard’s feral portrait of the French singer Edith Piaf as a captive wild animal hurling herself at the bars of her cage is the most astonishing immersion of one performer into the body and soul of another I’ve ever encountered in a film. Her portrayal of Piaf, plucked from the streets of Paris and molded into a music hall legend, ignites Olivier Dahan’s screen biography.”

Cotillard not only becomes Piaf, she transforms herself utterly convincingly to each stage of it. Again, Holden: “Ms. Cotillard’s Piaf ages shockingly, from a famished alley cat ravenously slurping up life to a stooped, feeble wreck whose dyed red hair is falling out.” You have only to compare Cotillard in the poster above as Edith in her prime with the YouTube clip below to get a small sense of this transformation; Cotillard also plays her much younger—a teenager—and much more ravaged at the end of her life.

The story unfolds chaotically, jumping around in the timeline. At times, it takes a moment to reorder events in your head as you’re watching. But ultimately, I think this captures Piaf’s disorderly life far better than if it were told in a more linear fashion.

My only complaint about the film is that it doesn’t give many glimpses of the happier moments in her life that would cause her to so embrace the notion of “No, I regret nothing.”

La Vie en Rose, 140 minutes, French and English, with subtitles

If the movie clip above has whetted your appetite, this two-disk CD set of Edith herself will be a banquet.

Edith Piaf: 30th Anniversaire

The 44 songs on this beautifully produced double album span Piaf’s 30-year career and show why the French call her “the greatest figure in the history of song.” Music producer Derek Rath says of the recording, “Her voice still rings with a passion for life, something that eventually consumed her.”

30th Anniversaire is a mix of torch songs and lively, even bouncy theatrical numbers performed with great music hall gusto. I think most of us, when we think of Piaf, gravitate to the former. On first listen, I was often tempted to skip past the uptempo songs, seeking out the lonely, vulnerable, three-in-the-morning tunes. But multiple listenings in, I found those upbeat numbers offered a nice balance to the darker ones. It gave a truer sense of Piaf’s own life, I think, too.

This YouTube clip of Piaf singing La Vie en Rose will give you another taste of her amazing talent. It will also show you that understanding French is not necessary to “getting” her music, her gift.

You can listen to samples of 30th Anniversaire at Amazon.com. And, a new feature there that I find most helpful, you can download individual mp3 tracks for 99¢ [hmmm—wonder where they got that idea]. So if you’re not up for an entire banquet of “Little Sparrow,” you can help yourself to just a taste.

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2 Responses to “Edith Piaf: A double helping of “Little Sparrow””

  1. Crêpes: A delicious way to always have Paris — Blue Kitchen Says:

    […] biopic of French singer Edith Piaf, La Vie en Rose, has come out on DVD [more about this at What’s on the kitchen boombox?]. And just last Friday, our friend Cara Black was in town promoting Murder in the Rue de Paradis […]

  2. Look and Taste’s Food Blog » Blog Archive » A profile of guest blogger Terry from ‘Blue Kitchen’ Says:

    […] biopic of French singer Edith Piaf, La Vie en Rose, has come out on DVD [more about this at What’s on the kitchen boombox?]. And just last Friday, our friend Cara Black was in town promoting Murder in the Rue de Paradis […]

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