By Jake Wilson
“It’s not usual to make a movie where you start with the footage and you don’t have a story,” says French filmmaker Marc di Domenico. “But at the same time, you do have a story, because this guy who did the footage is somebody very important.”
The guy di Domenico is talking about is none other than Charles Aznavour —singer, songwriter, actor, the son of Armenian immigrants who came to symbolise French culture to the world.
Aznavour was one of the most widely beloved of all 20th-century entertainers, and one of the most enduring: he started performing as a child in the 1930s, and gave his last concert in Japan in 2018, a month before his death.
Not so well known is the fact that besides acting for some of the great directors of French cinema — most famously, starring in Francois Truffaut’s 1960 new wave hit Shoot the Piano Player, which helped to launch him in the United States — Aznavour was also a filmmaker in his own right. From the late 1940s onward, he documented his world travels using a Bolex camera given to him by his mentor, the no less legendary singer Edith Piaf.
This material forms the substance of di Domenico’s documentary Aznavour by Charles, which paints a picture not just of Aznavour himself, but of the world as seen through Aznavour’s eyes: the steep streets of Montmartre where he lived as a young man, the busy streets of New York on his first visit, the lights of a Japanese TV studio, a trip down the Ubangi river in central Africa with straw huts perched on stilts above the water.
Di Domenico came to this project as a long-time friend of Aznavour’s son, Mischa, who is by his side to help promote the film (he looks strikingly like his father, though a little taller — Aznavour stood five foot two, and was sometimes referred to as “le petit Charles”).
His love of the French language, I think that’s what makes him French, and that’s what the people liked.
Through Mischa, di Domenico had known the Aznavour family since the 1990s, but he became closer to Charles when making an interview portrait for French TV.
“We spent a lot of time together, all day, every day, for three years. So that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, as in the end of Casablanca.”
It was then that di Domenico gained access to the footage Aznavour had shot over the decades. “I started to watch all this material, silent movies, and I was shocked by the quality,” di Domenico says. “He’s shooting in a little boat in Africa and I was thinking, ‘wow, what is he doing here?’ It’s interesting.”
Looking at all this, he says, changed his view of Aznavour, and yet confirmed some of the things he had felt all along. “He was telling me, ‘the place where I feel best is the street’, and when I saw this, I said to myself ‘That’s true.’ He was not lying. I can feel, he’s in the street, and it’s a pleasure for him to be there … not to be in places you’re supposed to be when you’re a star.”
This is quite different, he adds, from the impression created when today’s celebrities post photos or brief videos online. “When you do Instagram or Facebook, it’s just to say ‘Oh, look at me, I’m eating a pizza, or I’m drinking a Coke.’ This is not the way he’s shooting — he’s shooting the world. It’s outside him. It’s not him.”
The ability to be “present in real life,” di Domenico says, was also one of the keys to Aznavour’s success as a songwriter. “He had this intuition, naturally, to capture the way the society is moving.”
One example is his celebrated song What Makes A Man A Man, a frank protest against homophobia written from the point of view of a lonely female impersonator — not a subject many stars of his magnitude would have been game to tackle in 1972.
Given his long acting career, the pleasure he found in operating a camera and the fact that so many of his songs tell stories,I’m curious if Aznavour was ever tempted to try his hand at directing a film professionally.
“If he really wanted to do it, he would have,” di Domenico says. “But he didn’t have the time, because when he would do something, he was very serious. He was writing, then performing on stage, then recording, acting. To direct a movie, it’s three years.”
Mischa agrees. “He would have loved to be a director, but what he loved more was to interact with the audience.”
Di Domenico emphasises that for Aznavour, performing, like filming, was always a dialogue with the public. “He had the universality and the feeling of the people, the real people, the common people. He was not intellectual. All his lyrics could be studied in school today, but he was very simple, he hadn’t done any study in school.”
Despite this “universal” quality, Aznavour was often viewed as quintessentially French — which is paradoxical on a couple of levels, given that his parents came from elsewhere.
“He’s not French French,” Mischa says. “But his love of the French language, I think that’s what makes him French, and that’s what the people liked. When he came to America, when he came to Spain, he was always being French. Not trying to be…”
“Maybe the accent also,” Di Domenico adds. “When he was singing, he had the same accent as Maurice Chevalier.”
Something that could also be seen as very French is the bittersweet, even melancholic mood of many of Aznavour’s songs. But was this typical of the man himself, offstage?
“Not at all,” di Domenico says. “He was someone who was laughing every day, and joking, he had many, many friends.”
“I would say it’s more like a poetic vision of spleen,” Mischa breaks in, “which is not really melancholy. It’s like saudade, for the Brazilians … maybe something a bit sad, but it’s not sad.”
“If you look at the songs, they can seem sad, because they talk about sad love stories,” Mischa goes on. “But if you look closer” — he snaps his fingers — “there’s always a little twist at the end. So, OK, it’s over, but there’s always hope. That’s the difference from other beautiful French singers like [Jacques] Brel.”
As an example, he mentions another of Aznavour’s famous songs, Bon Anniversaire — in English, Happy Anniversary — in which a couple’s plans for a special evening are ruined by a series of farcical mishaps. “It’s like, everything went wrong, but we still love each other. And that’s what makes him him.”
Aznavour by Charles is screening as part of the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival, running nationally March 10 – April 19. Jake Wilson travelled to France courtesy of the Alliance Francaise.