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Chic Flick: The Film Music of Serge Gainsbourg

He never really left. A hero in his home-country, beloved to foreigners we now call "hipsters" since before The Bollock Brothers covered his "Harley David Son Of A Bitch." A carefully disheveled fashion icon, he managed to pull Bridgette Bardot and Jane Birkin (amongst other '60s and '70s nymphs) despite his rumpled white dress shirts and hawk-like profile. Serge Gainsbourg passed away a legend at the age of 62 in 1991. Sure, towards the end he caricatured himself with his slouchy lout of an alter ego, the rheumy-eyed Gainsbarre, and tortured a young Whitney Houston on one of the television's greatest moments. But open the gatefold to his 1970 masterpiece Histoire De Melody Nelson and bask in the glow of Serge in his prime – I often do, now that I'm thirty and grey streaks my black hair. My barber laughs every time I show up for a cut, carrying the album, humming "En Melody" and reminding him of the cut I hope to wear with half of the maestro's panache.

But, while he seems to be enjoying quite the fashion revival lately, Gainsbourg's late '60s and early '70s soundtrack work has still remained a footnote in his lengthy career. By the time 1968 rolled around, he had retired collaborator Alain Goraguer (sadly before the maestro composed his soundtrack to Le Planete Sauvage) and embraced two then unknowns: Michel Colombier and Jean Claude Vannier. Both are now legends in their own right, but the work that they put into Gainsbourg-penned scores such as Le Pacha and La Horse ensured that they too would see as many musical turns as Gainsbourg's well-tailored pea coats.

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Requeim Pour Un Con

From the 7” OST to "Le Pacha," a Jean Gabin film noir best known in America for the “impromptu” “Requeim Pour Un Con” music video contained within. After hearing about the scene for years, I finally tracked down a VHS copy of the film while in Paris in early 2001 and watched it at a friend’s flat in the Montemartre. The scene was worth the hassle. Serge, surrounded by his natty combo -- including a potential witness to the murder of Gabin’s partner -- steps up to the mic and, smoking his signature Gitanes cigarettes, belts out this proto-rap number. Gabin and his cohorts gaze at Gainsbourg through the engineer’s double paned windows in the control room. His index finger is colored yellow as a mummy’s from his habit, he embellishes each pause with a calculated throw of his head, and, all the while, you get the sense that Gainsbourg realized just how important this throwaway scene was. “C’est bonne, Serge,” calls the engineer, at the end of the scene. “Voila.” Serge walks out of the recording room, and into the history books.

New Delire

From the 7” OST to "Manon 70," a Catherine Denueve vehicle. I wonder how many record collectors first bought this record because they were attracted to the goddess in her prime? Those that did were in for a treat. This exploito-Indian sitar-psych fest dances with kitsch but goes home alone, ending with a mournful tap on the tabla to cap a frenzied, Paris-by-way-of-Delhi experience. Gainsbourg, always a fan of the double-entendre, cooked up a good one: New Delire, as in “New Delirum,” or a playful nickname for the Indian capital.


The b-side to the "Le Pacha" OST 7”, and the backdrop to one of the freakiest scenes in the movie: a nightclub scene where a scantily clad dancer and her compatriots seemingly mime Claude’s death scene in HAIR. While this rhythm always transfixed me, I must admit I thought it needed some heavy, funky drums. Lucky, then, that Miles from Breakestra, took it upon himself to record some. That version came out as part of a now hard-to-find compilation "Sitar Beat."

La Horse

The rarest of the rare Gainsbourg records. His publishing company, Hortensia, thought that they could capitalize on the icon’s score of another Gabin film, and released a promotional 7” to theater-goers. Gainsbourg’s label, Philips, did not take kindly to this affront and promptly rounded up all of the copies that the company had manufactured and destroyed them. Which is a pity, as this Jean Claude Vannier assisted instrumental stalks like the film’s heroin slinging gangsters and contains not only heavy breakbeats and a surprisingly well executed banjo (!) breakdown (a reference to the film’s provincial setting?), but Gainsbourg’s thrilling refrain on the piercing Rocksichord, When Malcolm Catto first told me about this record, I thought he was lying. Only when I finally held the hand made, pasted-on cover in my hands did I know he had been blessed to have carried the haunting memory of this song in the years prior to its official reissue.


The "Cannabis" soundtrack, long a holy-grail for those mystified by Serge’s funky side, has finally seen reissue. Now, this important bookend, which follows the Gainsbourg/Vannier masterpiece "Histoire De Melody Nelson", can be appreciated by all. But, while the album contains orchestral rock ballads that would make an 80s metal band blush, this beautiful bit of drama can’t be topped. Well, maybe the films opening scene of Serge, decked out in flared trousers and a fur coat that contained the pelts of dozens of small animals, walking armed amidst a sea of dead, naked women tops it. “Danger,” indeed.

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