OK, back to the puppet. What sticks out for me about Gainsbourg is its obsession with The Jewish Question. Jewishness, the movie insists, is the solution to the riddle of Serge, né Lucien Ginzburg. His iconoclasm, his compulsion to épatertout le monde, his conquests of shiksa goddesses—all of this can be traced Gainsbourg’s childhood in Vichy Paris and to his ongoing alienation in a country where Jews are tolerated but disdained. For Joann Sfar, the essence of Gainsbourg’s Jewishness isn’t spiritual or cultural. It’s physical: the otherness that he wears on his gueule, his ugly Jewish mug. I’m not sure I buy Sfar’s midrash, but I respect his zealousness about it—the way he bludgeons the theme home by parading that lumbering enormo-schnozz puppet across the screen for half the movie. It’s not subtle, but neither was Serge.
In fact, Serge was a freak—and here the film fails him. Sfar’s Gainsbourg is a slightly more urbane version of the usual biopic tragic genius. The peculiarity of the man and his art is lost in the mix. There’s never been a pop star like him: a wild sonic innovator; a poet and punster extraordinaire; and a Marquis de Sade-grade libertine, who recorded exquisitely crafted, witty, beautiful songs about fucking inflatable dolls, going to bed with his teenage daughter, and, um, coprophagy. It’s hard to make a guy like that seem boring, but Gainsbourg just about does it.
But maybe this is a problem of genre? I’m with you: Desecration-by-banality is built into the music biopic form. Drag out the puppets, cast an African-American child as Bob Dylan—it doesn’t matter; you’re still going to face the cringe-inducing karaoke moment when an actor tries to impersonate a great musician. I guess that’s why I prefer music movies about fake pop stars ( Almost Famous, Music and Lyrics) and barely fictionalized musical melodramas starring actual pop stars ( Purple Rain, 8 Mile). In the golden age of the Hollywood musical, they had the formula right: Hire a genius like Bing Crosby, round up some ace Tin Pan Alley songwriters, and have some hack churn out a little dialogue to string between the production numbers. If we must have biopics, why not film them before our musical greats kick the bucket? Hard Knock Life: The Jay-Z Story, starring Shawn Carter. I’d pay $17.50 to see that in 3-D.