This Is a film that shouldn’t really have worked. Take a singer and actor that is now barely known outside France (ok, you know the name but how many of his songs could you name?), show his old home movies while you have an actor read extracts from his journals, which occasionally border on the pretentious. So it’s a pleasant surprize that this somehow all holds together.
First, there is the fascinating back story. Aznavour’s parents escaped the Armenian genocide on foot, and arrived in Paris shortly before he was born in 1924. He scrabbled by in the then-poor artists’ quarter of Montmartre in a house without water or electricity, getting the odd job singing and acting. He married young and had a child.
Then he was offered a one week gig in Canada, which was extended and he returned seven years later. Somehow his marriage didn’t survive. He later moved to New York where he was astounded to see that migrants seemed to be on an equal footing to the rest of the (white) population. Later he appeared in the anti-war film Taxi for Tobruk, saying uniforms should be seen on screen and nowhere else.
Just as the Algerian war was heating up, he released an anti-militarist record, which was promptly banned. He was later appointed as the Armenian Ambassador to UNESCO. And, once he became famous, he hobnobbed with stars from Barbra Streisand to Sammy Davis Junior (he approved of both because they were short and from ethnic minorities).
We can thank one of his early star friends for most of the pictures. One of his early jobs was working as a gopher for Edith Piaf, who gave him a 16mm camera in 1948. From then until 1982, it accompanied him on his travels, just as he was making it as an international star. This means that on top of the scenes of Paris and New York, we also see Africa, Japan (where we see a weird televised wrestling contest between a child and a giant man) and East Jerusalem. Aznavour expresses his hopes that Palestinians and Israelis can live together on kibbutzim.
The pictures are impressive, partly because of their archaic form. Almost square and in otherworldly colours, they are a depiction of a different time, a different place. And as we look back into the past, the soundtrack contains old Aznavour songs which add to the sense that we are encountering visions and sounds from a different era.
Which slightly begs the question, why now? There’s a practical answer to this question. Shortly before his death in 2018, Aznavour bequeathed his old films to his friend Marc di Domenico. These films had never been seen in public before. Within a year, di Domenico had whittled down 34 years worth of film into this 75 minute documentary.
And yet who is interested in Charles Aznavour any more? I vaguely remember him from my childhood as someone who occasionally showed up on variety shows – a French singer who lacked the credibility of Jacques Brel (who yes, I know, was Belgian) or Juliette Greco. And he must be even further from the public limelight now.
So, I’m not sure exactly how many people would actually choose to go to see this film, but if you don’t, it really is your loss. It’s a fascinating portrait of a variety of countries, decades and a man who was celebrated in all of them, but was never fully accepted.
There is also quite a bit about the various women who Aznavour married. People who are interested in that sort of stuff may well find it interesting, but it was the weakest part of the film for me. The music is very listenable without me wanting to rush out and buy an album full of the stuff. In short, there are much worse ways of spending your Sunday afternoon than watching something like this.