Wagner: Piaf’s music permeates film history

By Patrick Wagner

While watching the Best Original Score portion of the Academy Awards ceremony this year, I was… While watching the Best Original Score portion of the Academy Awards ceremony this year, I was pulling for the “The Social Network” supergroup Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for sure, but my heart was with another film’s music all together. Considering the movies from this year, I can’t help but think of the how wonderfully Édith Piaf’s emotive music from more than half a century ago worked in Christopher Nolan’s modern epic “Inception.”

Piaf, an icon in her native France for the past 70 years, has created auditory wonders that transcend one tongue and deliver the experiences of the proletariat life she knew to every part of the world.

Piaf’s music is hard to define but rests comfortably between the American jazz of the 1930s and ’40s, cabaret music — think of what probably influenced the Dresden Dolls — and the folk music of France. Her lyrics, exclusively in French, cover love and other topics from a working-class perspective that was, in many ways, defining of Piaf’s persona and life.

Though we know she was born into poverty on Dec. 19, 1915, much of the rest of Piaf’s early life is still shrouded in mystery. Various stories tell of her being abandoned as a child, raised by a brothel-owning grandmother and overcoming numerous other hardships before she began a professional singing career in 1935 to almost immediate fanfare. Her stage last name of Piaf (“sparrow”) was given to her at this time as a descriptor of her initial nervousness and small stature — she was less than 5 feet tall.

During World War II, she performed for the occupying Germans but was anything but a collaborator in their cause. Piaf assisted the French Resistance, wrote a subtle song of protest and personally helped Jewish composer Michael Elmer escape persecution. From after the war until her death in 1963, she continued to be celebrated as a living icon of Paris and particularly of society’s downtrodden.

Piaf’s music is remarkably accessible, even to the point that she appeared on American television during the end of her career. Looking through YouTube and watching her recite an English-language lyrical summary before launching into “Milord” is just captivating.

If there is such a thing as a reserved diva, Piaf might have been it. Her hands on her stomach, she sings the tale of a jealous woman with such strength it’s hard to believe that it could be anything but autobiographical. When the song finishes on an exaggerated loud-soft dynamic she booms along with her orchestra.

That same strength is reflected in “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” which is her song featured in “Inception.” The soft ballad cascades like a living dream through the characters’ illusions of reality, but this isn’t her only presence on the soundtrack. According to score composer Hans Zimmer, her songs were interpolated throughout the score.

No, they’re not included in  the bassy brass hit from the trailers, but through parts of the score, such as in “Half-Remembered Dream,” the songstress’s melodies seem to dwell just outside Zimmer’s mind — listen for the piano and brass melody.

This isn’t the first time a filmmaker has used Piaf’s music. The end of Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” for example, features a scene in which one of Piaf’s phonograph records plays prominently in the background — one of many times her music has been featured in cinema.

A film about her extraordinary life was made in 2007 titled “La Vie en Rose” after her signature 1946 song. It starred Marion Cotillard, who would, interestingly, go on to play Mal Cobb in “Inception.”

I have to admit I’d heard of Piaf before “Inception” brought her back to the limelight. A year or so ago I saw Martha Wainwright, sister of Rufus Wainwright, on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” performing Piaf’s 1944 song “C’est Toujours la Même Histoire” with a rare power.

Wainwright’s voice sang the silky French tones differently than Piaf’s madcap vibrato, adapting rather than imitating the legend’s song. Andin contrast to the lush orchestral arrangements that often accompany Piaf’s songs, Wainwright’s small ensemble of guitar, clarinet, piano and bass made that New York studio sound like an intimate Paris nightclub.

Compared to the usual fair of hip-hop and indie rock on “Late Night,” this was something drastically different. As soon as that video went off the Internet, I hunted down the superb Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, à Paris: Martha Wainwright’s Piaf Record, which she was promoting on the show.

A bit more lush in the instrumentation than on “Late Night,” the album presents a wonderful live experience that I only wish I could have seen in person. While each musician strums, bows, strikes or blows into their instrument with unabashed tenacity, Wainwright internalizes Piaf’s words and seems to move with each.

“The Social Network” might have won the Oscar, but the music of Édith Piaf — in the movies or otherwise — has won the hearts of people the world over, even those who don’t speak French.

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