Brel didn’t want to live a conventional life and would always try to run away from routine. That’s why he started to compose and sing. That’s why he then quit the stage in 1967 to focus on acting and directing films. Eternal adolescent, he developed a passion for sailing and navigated around the world. But he also had many affairs and fear of routine eventually lead him to abandon his wife and daughter.
In 1974 he was diagnosed with lung cancer. But his illness didn’t quite manage to take away his extroardinary energy. He spent his last years living on the Marquisas islands while sailing around the Carribeans and working on his last album, Les Marquises, which remains one of his most acclaimed. He died one year later, in 1978.
Part 2 of the documentary covers the first half of Jacques Brel’s musical career. Leaving Belgium for Paris in the early 50s, he is an idealistic catholic young man when he encounters the sophisticated intelligentsia of Paris’ left bank. Heavily influenced by French existentialist philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus, he becomes more socially aware and starts writing about universal themes such as life, death, loneliness and poverty. Following post war existentialist tradition, he expresses his anger against the military, his fears of loosing his individuality and his hatred for mediocrity and ‘respectable people’.
Universally revered in the French speaking world, Jacques Brel is widely considered to be one of the greatest songwriters and performers of all time. But despite having sold tens of millions of records and some of his songs being adapted by the likes of David Bowie and Nina Simone, he still remains subject to a modest cult following in the English speaking world.
In part 1 of this BBC documentary series, Brel’s friends and collaborators introduce us to the world of the Belgian genius. They discuss the beauty, complexity and power of his literary lyrics, as well as the extroardinary way he embodied them on stage, in the pure tradition of French chanson.