The legendary Georges Brassens in concert in 1966. © Jean-Pierre Leloir
Georges Brassens’ moustache is at least as well known to the French as Astérix’s and, in many ways, Brassens is as popular in France today as he was 40 years ago, as is made clear by a visit to the exhibition “Brassens ou la Liberté” at the Cité de la Musique: people of all ages can’t resist humming along to the Brassens’ songs being played through loudspeakers.
Curators Joann Sfar and Clémentine Deroudille have stressed the singer’s anarchist, freedom-loving side in an attempt to overcome the stereotype of the benevolent mustachioed, pipe-smoking singer with a guitar slung over his shoulder. Sfar, the mastermind behind the show, is a successful and talented bande dessinée (comic-book) author and filmmaker (he wrote and directed, among others, the movie Gainsbourg). He has succeeded in making the exhibition both child-friendly and interesting for adults. Visitors can, for example, listen to samples of interviews with Brassens by picking up the receiver of one of the 1970s-style phones dotted around the exhibition and dialing four numbers corresponding to the excerpt.
Sfar’s colorful and mischievous drawings line the exhibition’s aisles and review Brassens’ life in an often absurd and poetic way. Most of the area downstairs is devoted to children, who can make up swear words, draw tributes to Brassens or get their picture taken with a moustache and a banjo, which creates a gleeful cacophony if you dare to walk alongside one of the many school groups visiting the exhibition.
The show’s set-up is both chronological and thematic. It starts with Brassens’ childhood in Sète (before he had a moustache) and continues with his arrival in Paris. The themes covered – youth, literature, writing, anarchy, shows and death – cover the complex range of the singer’s personality. Each of them is brought to life with photos, recordings, videos or original lyrics and instruments. We see Brassens with his beloved friends and being interviewed for the first time on TV, and we discover Jeanne le Bonniec, the woman who rescued him when he fled the Service du Travail Obligatoire (compulsory work service for the German war effort) in 1944.
Some of the exhibits are priceless. Brassens used to write pithy comments about the audience at each of his shows in a little notebook, and we learn that the Cannes audience was “very nice” whereas that of chic St-Juan les Pins was “snobbish.” Then there are the home videos of his friends and pets shot by Brassens at no. 9, impasse Florimont, in Paris’s 14th arrondissement with a small movie camera he purchased with his first earnings. They reveal a facet of his personality few people know: Brassens was famous for being an ours mal léché (gruff and shy), so it is surprising to see him smiling and joking around in the films. We also see some censorship files on songs that were banned – Brassens was one of the most censored French singers ever, because of the antimilitarist and sexual content of some of his songs, “La Mauvaise Réputation,” a hymn to non-conformism, being the perfect example. The exhibition ends with a film of a 1969 concert.
The main problem with the exhibition is that it is a victim of its own success: the narrow aisles are too crowded and it’s hard to enjoy if you cannot take your time and interact with each exhibit.
That said, the Cité de la Musique, following up on its excellent Serge Gainsbourg show in 2008, has once again managed to demonstrate that it is possible to create a music-related exhibition that is both popular and of great quality. Georges Brassens could not have asked for more.
Cité de la Musique: 221, avenue Jean Jaurès, 75019 Paris. Métro: Porte de Pantin. Tel.: 01 44 84 44 84. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 12am-6pm; Friday, noon-10pm; Sunday, 10am-6pm. Admission: €8. Through August 21. www.cite-musique.fr
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