The ill-loved pop star who did things "his way"...
The untimely death of Claude François at the age 39 was a real earthquake in the world of entertainment, but it was also welcomed with a satirical tone.
Indeed, a renowned French newspaper exploited the context of legislative elections and titled (literally) that the teen idol had just "volted", you get the pun... and the good taste. For a whole generation, Claude François aka Cloclo was a legend, for the media, he was a cultural phenomenon, but he never got the respect of the 'intelligentsia', reducing him to a poor man's Elvis with sappy, syrupy songs and kitschy costumes and choreographic numbers.
But time did justice to his legacy and three decades after his death, like a good wine, his songs have aged well and hit a sensitive nostalgic chord, showing that Cloclo was more than what his 'image' implied. He was a complex 'character' whose ambition and passion hid some deep insecurity, and these are the aspects unveiled by Florent Emilio-Siri's biography film. It is not a groundbreaking movie, it features the usual montages, musical interludes and obligatory mental breakdowns, but it works because the film has a great character.
It was Gabin who said "when you've got a great role, talent just comes naturally". And how! While not as controversial as Serge Gainsbourg, handsome as Johnny Halliday or international as Charles Aznavour, Claude François aka Cloclo was a game-changer, the living incarnation of popular music, pop highlighted. He was a man of extreme versatility with an instinct for lyrics and acute business flair, so you can never really tell if his 'electrifying trances' during concerts were genuine or parts of an act. A little bit of both, the talent of Cloclo was to exploit art for his image and vice versa. On that level, he was the most complete French artist of his time, "great" regardless of any personal bias toward his songs. He always did things "his way".
And the film follows this very way from his childhood in Egypt to his first steps as a drummer, from the first hit "Belle, Belle, Belle" to his pivotal encounter with manager Paul Lederman then his lightning ascension over the French billboards, culminating with "As Usual" (better known as "My Way" across the Atlantic), finally his successful but brief surfing over the 'Disco' wave cut abruptly by his death in 1978 from a freak accident. Cloclo known for his obsessive-compulsion disorders wanted to fix a light bulb while standing on his bathtub... only to join the sordid gallery of celebrities dead in their bathroom. The film doesn't overplay the tragedy, all you see is a man on the top, smiling, he didn't see his death coming, but maybe death was part of a divine scheme.
That's the magic behind "My Way"'s straightforward approach, it shows and we can tell. Speaking for myself, his decade-and-half career didn't have many secrets to me, but I enjoyed the film and the actors because Claude François was a larger-than-life figure, a complete singer and dancer, a showman, an entertainer, an editor, a businessman and while his initial successes were mostly relying on remake to American songs, he came up with one of the most reprized songs of all time. And yet no one would make the connection between Frank Sinatra and Claude François. Even Claude wouldn't dare to approach Ol' Blue Eyes in a hotel corridor. That scene was very poignant and revealing about the vulnerable nature of the singer: he was jealous, he didn't like his ducky voice, his height, his rivalry with Johnny Halliday and always tried to prove something.
A very powerful moment shows a devastated Claude drumming after the passing of his father just when he got his first big break, his father disapproved the career path of his son and Claude didn't have time to earn his pride. I don't know how much of this scene is true but it works on the emotional prism of the film. Claude was known for his glittery extravagant suit, but 'likability' wasn't his strongest one, his career often shown at the expenses of his family ties and romantic relationships. His mother was a gambling-addicted Italian and Claude was a man of many women, sometimes intoxicated by his own power with the younger ones.
The one relationship that worked was his friendship with Paul Lederman, played by a scene-stealing Benoit Magimel. Together, they'll always speak a clear language and identify the moments where they're going too soft and it is time for a little push, that's how he came up with his famous dancers known as the "Claudettes", he edited his magazine and became a phenomenon on the same (national) level as the Beatles. That was Cloclo, an eternal quest for perfection, leading to countless rumors about hidden accounts, hidden children hidden homosexuality, but he's got always a trick under his sleeve. One of his greatest hits was the well-titled : the "ill-loved".
And that kind of sums up the angle taken by the film, it doesn't over-glorify him, he's not the perfect husband, lover and businessman, in his yacht when asked about the necessity to abandon his model agency, he literally says "I can't get rid of my girls' trap" so Claude did enjoy his success without moderation. And it's for this quest for constant perfection that lead to his untimely death, one that shocked millions of fans and inspired a satirical reaction.
But if he was ill-loved, he was loved nonetheless and his death was the ultimate intervention of fate to make him reach that iconic status, had he been alive, there wouldn't have been a legend Claude François and maybe not a biopic. He wanted to become a legend "his way" but sometime you got to follow the way of higher instances. It was tragic that "Cloclo" died but tragedy is sometimes the stuff legends are made on.
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