I gave a lecture for the Alliance Française du North Shore (of Chicago) on Monday, and had a great time speaking with members of their chapter. I feel like my talk went pretty well, and it reminded me how rusty I feel conversationally.
I began talking music with one of their members, and we discussed our favorite French songs and musicians. He mentioned the tune “Comme D’habitude” by Claude François. Give it a listen:
Sound familiar? Obviously. Turns out, Paul Anka heard the tune while in Paris, and rewrote the words for Frank Sinatra as “My Way.” While the latter is a reflective look back at one’s life, the original lyrics to “Comme D’habitude” (translated “As Usual”) speak more to a romantic relationship at the end of its run.
I don’t think there is any scandal surrounding Anka’s rewrite; Anka obtained the rights legally and all credit seems to be retained where it was due. But as I discussed music with Bill (the gentleman from the AF du NS), he did express some light disdain for Bobby Darin’s rewrite of Trenet’s “La Mer” (which became the American hit “Beyond the Sea”).
Can’t rewrite or translate every masterpiece and make everyone happy, I guess.
I’ve added “Comme D’habitude” to my Paris playlist on Spotify, found here.
Having just released Pigeon, my second novel set in Paris, I thought I’d share my favorite movies that transport me to the city. They are by no means my take on “the best” (in fact, my personal taste in movies comes through pretty strong in these). But, if you’re traveling to the city of light, these films will absolutely put you in the headspace of being there. In no particular order…
1. Before Sunset
This one is probably my personal favorite of Paris movies, although I admit it’s not for everyone. It’s a real study in relationship through dialogue. Masterfully written. Plus, they capture the feel of Paris perfectly as the two main characters spend the entire movie walking about town. For anyone unfamiliar with the series, Before Sunset is actually a sequel to Before Sunrise (set in Vienna) and a prequel to the third installment, Before Midnight (set in Greece)—all shot nine years apart with the same two principle actors. But in my opinion, Before Sunset doesn’t need either it’s prequel or sequel, and in fact might even be better without seeing the other two first.
2. Day of the Jackal
This is in my top 5 movies of all time. I’ve always thought this is what a thriller is supposed to look like: non-cgi special effects, suspense and tension based on the writing. This is also the movie that really made me realize an important aspect of Paris that I really love. Here in America, our cities are young. Even the old ones have been remodeled and rebuilt over and over again. But Paris has preserved herself. Sure there have been changes throughout history (lots), but not so many that the last few generations have returned to something unfamiliar. When Day of the Jackal was shot in the early seventies, Paris looked largely like it does today. And that’s comforting.
This one might the most creative of the bunch in terms of writing, cinematic execution, the colors—everything. Plus, it’s really what everyone (at least of my generation) thinks of when they think of French movies. It is still immensely popular with audiences, recently spawning a Broadway musical. The movie is one part whimsy and one part indie film heavyweight, and I can’t tell which one dominates—and I’m okay with that.
4. Midnight in Paris
First and foremost, this is a beautiful movie. Woody Allen has gone out of his way to capture the look and feel of Paris in a warm way. I realize that his style isn’t for everyone, but I’d say that this is one of his most appealing films for general moviegoers. The casting and acting are perfect. The story is creative and fun. The only hangup I have on this one relates to Woody’s personal history, which begs a conversation about whether or not to separate the art from the artist. But, for me, that conversation is a complicated one and deserves proper time and space elsewhere. The bottom line for this list of movies: Midnight in Paris will take you there, and you’ll probably love it.
This is classic wife-saving Harrison Ford. Regarding it’s relationship to Paris, I love that it’s not the sight-seers paradise the way others on this list might be, but it still puts you there. It might feel a little dated at points, but I think that’s part of it’s charm—particularly since it holds up a little more than some other suspense/thrillers of it’s generation. Being written and directed by Roman Polanski, I’m back to the same “can I separate the art from the artist” discussion that I have with Midnight in Paris.
6. Is Paris Burning?
If you love WWII movies, this one’s your ticket. It’s the definition of epic: long, beautiful, and stuffed full of big star cameos. Released in 1966, it’s a really lovely portrait of Paris in black and white. A great rainy day or home-sick-from-work day movie. And even though there is very little believable violence in contrast to what we see in today’s war movies (there’s still shooting and death, but it’s the kind of death scenes we act out as kids when we clutch our chest, grunt, and fall over), or even any graphic suffering, but the tremendous pain of the holocaust still rings every now and then in Is Paris Burning?. That stuff never gets easier to watch, and this movie doesn’t lean on it, but it’s there and that’s important. Plus, it really rounds out the experience of the war at the tail end of the occupied Paris era. Released in 1966. I can’t find a good trailer for this one, so here’s the opening sequence:
7. Paris, Je t’Aime
This charming film is actually 18 short films, each crafted by a different noteworthy director and featuring a different neighborhood in Paris. It’s a nice tribute to the city, which the watcher will see a good amount of (maybe more so than most of the other films on this list due to the diversity in locales). Some of the short films are funny, some sad, some poignant, but all are meaningful. Plus, it’s a mix of genres that actually works when put together. On top of famous directors, you’ll get a lot of famous faces here too.
8. Camille Claudel
This one is a must for fans of the sculptor, Rodin. And if you’re planning a trip to Paris, this movie paired with a visit to La Musée Rodin is also a good move. It’ll add behind-the-scenes meaning to individual pieces of art as well as give some depth into who Rodin and Claudel were as characters. Although I fully recognize that the movie may not be 100% accurate historically (after all, the actors are portraying interpretations affected by modern perspectives, among many other factors), it still lends insight where I hadn’t seen insight at the museum. The movie does a great job of bringing that era of Paris, the statues, and the people to life.
I know that Hugo has been billed at times as a children’s movie, but it is so much more complex than that label suggests. The story is ultra rich. The characters are perfect. The colors are vibrant. And the ending has enough big payoffs to make the run time feel worth it. This is classic Scorsese storytelling without the blood. My father, who is particularly picky in his choices of movies made after the seventies, deemed this as possibly the best movie he’s ever seen. That’s really saying something.
For the final pick: Sure, I could have gone with DaVinci Code (which doesn’t feel like it’s out to capture the city as much as the story, which is okay), Paris When It Sizzles (another fav, but shot on a lot of sound stages, so not necessarily a good view of the city), Paris (The 2008 film with Juliette Binoche), 2 Days in Paris, Moulin Rouge, How to Steal a Million, or any of the other countless movies set in the world’s most beautiful city. But I didn’t.
10. Lost in Paris
This one is definitely the wild card of the bunch. Here’s what I loved about Lost in Paris. I have no idea what the budget was, but it looks low—but not in a bad way at all. The characters are funny. Some of the gags are downright vaudevillian, which I love. The storyline is creative and isn’t told 100% linearly, which is also something I attempted in my first book. So I was inspired by that. Plus, it’s brand new. Sure, it’s untested by time, but I really feel compelled to root for the rookie in this instance. I’m officially a fan.
Having just released “Pigeon,” my second novel set in Paris, I figured it was time to share my playlist that transports me to the city. I chose these because they’re a mix of my favorite artists, songs, arrangements, and musical genres. With a few exceptions, I’ve loaded all of these into a Spotify playlist (link at the bottom of the post). Here we go:
1. I Love Paris (Cole Porter)
We’re kicking this off with the quintessential songwriter about 20’s Paris, Cole Porter. Believe it or not, it’s hard to find polished recordings of the man himself performing his songs. Every famous jazz singer or crooner on Earth sang this one at some point.
2. April In Paris (Frank Sinatra)
Putting the Chairman of the Board up front here. Can’t go wrong—especially since this list is really designed for Americans who love Paris. See also Sinatra’s version of I Love Paris.
3. The Last Time I Saw Paris (Betty Johnson)
I like this version because it’s short. It gets to the hook right off the bat. Other versions won’t do that for you. Plus, I like Betty’s style. Dean Martin does a pretty good version of this one too, as does Nicki Parrott, whose entire album about Paris is pretty solid.
4. J’aime Paris au Moi de Mai (Charles Aznavour)
Aznavour might be my favorite French singer. My uncle introduced me to him many years ago, and I think we both find ourselves entertained with his disinterested tone in his classic Tu t’laisses aller (In English: You’ve Let Yourself Go). See also his Gosse de Paris.
5. Paris (Ben Rector)
I’m trying to pepper in some more current music here and there on this list, as well as a nice mix of English and French. I dare you to find something catchier and more melodically inspiring than this one.
6. Paris (Edith Piaf)
The leading lady of French singers. When I was 16, my aunt made me a list of graves to see in Père Lachaise after I declared I was going just to see Jim Morrison’s. Edith’s name was on top. See also her definitive versions of Sous la Ciel de Paris and La Vie En Rose.
7. Dans mon Paris (Zaz)
Zaz is immensely popular—just maybe not in the U.S. She can sing like crazy. The more you listen, the more you will love, I promise. Her whole album Paris is a jazzy tribute to the city. I particularly love the clarinet in this tune (I’m on a jazz clarinet kick right now anyway). In other news, if you like this tune, you’ll love her debut album Zaz. Note: Zaz’s album, Paris, isn’t on Spotify in the U.S. as of the moment I wrote this. I’ll check back to update, but I haven’t included it on the playlist in the link at the bottom of this page. Instead, here’s a video on youtube:
8. Montmartre (Sarah Darling)
Here’s a nice little ballad about maybe the most fun neighborhood in Paris (in my opinion).
9. Paris (The 1975)
You can tell I love the classics, but I have a soft spot for more current pop as well. With that in mind, it’s hard to deny the 1975. This one is a good one from them.
10. Dolce Francia (Carla Bruni)
Another classic that’s seen many iconic singers. I felt as though it was important to include something from Carla Bruni, the actress, model, and singer who became the first lady of France when she married Nicholas Sarkozy, French president from ’07-’12.
11. Place de la Contrescarpe (Jacques Brel)
A classic French singer singing about a square in Paris. Listen to him roll those r’s, and you’ll find yourself doing the same along with him. At least try it once. It’s pretty fun.
12. The River Seine (Nicki Parrott)
As I mentioned earlier, Nicki Parrott’s album The Last Time I Saw Paris is a solid listen through and through. I love this one, though. See also Dean Martin’s version of this. Here’s the youtube video for this.
13. Paris (Camille)
Yet another tune that’s ultra catchy without a word of English in it. I picture a rag-tag band playing an impromptu gig on the banks of the Seine with this one.
14. Les Champs Élysées (Joe Dassin)
This is a downright anthemic-sounding tune lauding the grand avenue.
15. Paris (The Chainsmokers)
This is the song that made me a Chainsmokers fan. I realize it sounds drastically different than some of the other selections on this list, but I stand by the call. It’s catchy. It’s rebellious. It’s beautiful. Paris.
16. Paris (April)
This is a beautiful little tune that I don’t know anything about—other than I found it and grew to love it by searching for songs about Paris. Plus, it fits in this mix.
17. Sous la Ciel de Paris (Yves Montand)
There are so many incredible versions of this song, obviously led by Edith Piaf’s. But here’s an opportunity to hear a male lead with a beautiful voice. He does this French classic justice and then some.
18. Give Paris One More Chance (Jonathan Richman)
For me, the genius of everything this artist does is in its simplicity. It’s all clever, but never over-thought. And this song has real charm. Fun fact: you might remember this artist as the roving troubadour in the movie Something About Mary.
19. Paris Sera Toujours Paris (Maurice Chevalier)
Chevalier might be the grandfather of all French crooners. The tone of this song is perfect — almost a happy shrug as he sings “Paris will always be Paris!”
20. Paris (Yael Naim)
Added to the list by request. Exotic. Beautiful.
21. Paris (Ooh La La) (Grace Potter & The Nocturnals)
Here’s the straight-up rock song addition to this list. I like it because the lyric “if I was from Paris” fully admits that the singer—and probably the listener—are not actually from Paris. For most of us, it exists as much in our minds as it does in the world. Few cities have earned that spot in our hearts and imaginations.
22. La Romance de Paris (Charles Trenet)
When I was 22, visiting my aunt and uncle in the French countryside, I fell for the music of Trenet. Other recommended songs from this artist include Le Piano de la Plage and La Mer, the latter of which was translated to English and released by Bobby Darin as Beyond the Sea. But it was Trenet who wrote it.
23. Under the Bridges of Paris (Dean Martin)
If you like this tune, Dean-o’s album French Style is worth the listen. Sure he’s an American and almost portraying the genre with a tongue-in-cheek grin sometimes, but this song in particular really works.
24. You Don’t Know Paree (Colleen McHugh)
The point made during this song is a good one. As Americans, myself included, we love the city. We visit, we get to know our way around, we have a great time. But in the end, we can’t truly know her. It’s her world, her history. We can’t truly live it—only celebrate it.