My appreciation of Francis Lai began late one night when I heard a Cinemax Cable "promo" for a movie called
"Bilitis". The music really jumped out at me. It was dark, deep, distinct, haunting and decidedly melancholy. Most importantly, it was
ELECTRONIC. The sharp and crisp melody line contrasting with the lush chamber quartet strings quite literally brought chills up my spine. I managed to videotape "Bilitis" and thus began my journey.
I soon acquired a copy of the
"Bilitis" soundtrack and two (of the many, I would learn) compilation l.p.'s. It was then that I learned that Francis Lai, who created this delicate and poignant
"Bilitis" music, was in fact the composer of
"Man and a Woman" and
"Live for Live"; soundtracks that were more than a little commercial for my tastes. In fact, it was my parent's music! Oh my. What would I tell my "progressive rock" friends, who had a natural disdain for anything "commercial" or "establishment"? Or my room mate who was suddenly hearing these "easy listening" tunes emanating from my bedroom?
So, it has been a strange journey and quite an education listening to, and collecting, Francis Lai's music. I oftentimes felt "singled-out". But more often than not, I Iet Mr. Lai's music do the talking. I soon grew to enjoy (as my family, friends, and, yes, lovers would eventually do) practically everything I heard. I learned that underneath the commercial and "romantique" exterior of Mr. Lai's songs there are some quite extraordinary arrangements and sound textures. And most of all, there is warmth and passion that I would later learn was a product of the man, himself: charming, gracious and humble.
If I may get on my soap-box, it seems the world is always ready to tackle the guy who is on top. It builds him up and tears him down. It grants success, but guarantees that the success will not last long and when it ends, there will be quite an extraordinary fall. Witness Michael Jackson.
Critics have been doing this for years to Mr. Lai and I suspect he is impervious to this, if not a little hurt.
He has had spectacular success. The number of songs he has written is staggering.
And if the names of the performers of his songs do not mean anything to you, I suggest you look them up on
Yahoo.com. It is a veritable "who is who" of French music: Edith
Piaf, Claude Goaty, Juliette Greco, Colette Renard, Jacqueline
Dulac. This does not even begin to include other nationalities: Elton John, Demis
Roussos, Tom Jones, Carly Simon. The list goes on and on.
So here we have a man who has pretty much forged his own path, worked quietly and willingly with some of the great film directors (Claude Lelouch, Bryan Forbes, Rene Clement, Michael Winner to name a few) and has put out some of the most sensitive, melodic, and skillfully composed and arranged music of the last
It is no wonder that I have, since first hearing
"Bilitis", tried to put my hands and ears on everything I could find by the man.
And it's been a real pleasure charting his path thru the years by way of the technology and the arrangers he uses. A key to understanding Francis Lai is that he is quite the innovator in electronic music. His first great soundtrack success,
"Man and a Woman", utilized an "electronic accordion". That is what that "pluck-y" almost organ sounding instrument is.
He never stopped there. By the early 70's he was using synthesizers with his then-arranger Christian Gaubert
"Le Corps Des Mon Ennemi",
The latter half of the 70's found him using synthesizer artist and arranger Jean Musy exclusively.
"Passion Flower Hotel" and
"Robert et Robert" all bear Mr. Musy's unique stamp. Some would argue that this was the height of Mr. Lai's synthesizer experimentation.
But he continued. The 80's found him using Roman Romanello, an established synth artist in his own right
"Sins"). And the 90's saw him back with Christian Gaubert and a variety of other arrangers, with synthesizers being a key ingredient
("Il y a Des Jour et Des Lunes",
Today Mr. Lai does most of his own arrangements on a midi'd synthesizer accordion, meaning that he can play a full range of orchestral sounds from his accordion keys. It is an impressive set up and reminds one that Mr. Lai has not strayed far from his cabaret roots.
I had the pleasure of visiting Mr. Lai in his Paris flat and found him to be as I described his music above: charming, gracious and humble. I had had a correspondence with him that thankfully kept taking turns for the best. Finally, I was in front of his apartment building buzzing his flat. His home studio is filled with all kinds of accolades: gold records for
"Love Story", his Academy Award, Cesars and other recognitions. They are in a built in glass case that can't be missed when you walk in. There are big overstuffed leather sofas where it seems one would sit while Mr. Lai entertains.
His living room opens up to the most spectacular view of the Tour Eiffel. You can see the base all the way to the top. He has two cats that run in between your feet and there is a comfortable clutter. He graciously shared some red wine with us (despite the fact that he is a teetotaler) and even afforded us a translator (his son, Oliver, who was visiting). I found myself feeling quite comfortable and at home.
When I think of Francis Lai, I think of his flat and this extraordinary view of the Tour Eiffel and him composing, eating, sleeping, living, and dreaming within its reach.
This, I determined, is the essence of Francis Lai: Paris, the city he lives and dreams in. It is unavoidable and he prefers it so.
So next time you listen to one of Mr. Lai's clever, haunting, beautiful and nostalgic melodies, think of him, in sight of the Tour Eiffel, living in and dreaming of Paris and you will have a pretty good idea of the man and his music.