Michael Coveney: Here's Johnny, at last...and a new FestenDate: 16 October 2012
The French Elvis, Johnny Hallyday, aged 69, made his London concert debut last night at the Albert Hall, and 50 million Frenchmen can't be wrong (as Sophie Tucker once sang): half a million of them live in our capital city and a good proportion of those acclaimed their one and only rock god with a fervour that even Johnny's great mate Rod Stewart might have found a little excessive.
But what a show: Johnny, the black leather Lothario, the only man in the world who's had as many women as facelifts, emerged in a Gothic inferno of blazing skyscrapers and comic book graphics to deliver an impeccable two-hour set of classic rock and roll and throbbing architectural anthems, backed by three black female singers and a fabulous tight band with lots of brass.
He may look a bit weird - James Dean has morphed into Bruce Springsteen with a Barry Manilow bouffant - but his vocal powers are completely unimpaired, despite all the operations, tax scandals, high (as a kite) living and cancer rumours that have maintained his legendary status as a one-man soap opera in the French magazines for 50 years.
He's sold 110 million records, made 17 films and was most famously married to fellow pop idol Sylvie Vartan, later having a long affair with film star Nathalie Baye in between marrying two other women (one of them twice) and settling down finally, sort of, 15 years ago, with Laetitia Boudou, 30 years his junior.
You'd have thought he'd come across as a bit tacky and shop-soiled, but not a bit of it: he has charm and personality to burn, and these qualities are best displayed in the songs I much preferred, the lachrymose Gallic anthems that are his absolute trademark - "Ma guele" (that means my mouth, not my girl), "Ne m'oublie," and, especially, "Que je t'aime." These songs are a bit Jacques Brel-ish, but they also point the way towards the best theatrical items in Les Miserables.
It's an amazing quirk that, although Hallyday is revered in the French-speaking countries, he has never cracked the American or British markets, despite his renown in the industry. Jimi Hendrix was at one stage his support act (he repaid the compliment last night with a terrific version of "Hey Joe"), and he once jammed with the Rolling Stones. And he nodded towards a fellow oldie balladeer, Tom Jones, in duetting with one of his singers, the wonderful Amy Keys, on "I Who Have Nothing."
And that was about his only concession to being in London. So why did I go? Partly out of curiosity, partly because my taller and better half has been obsessed by the fellow - and indeed Francoise Hardy - from a very early age. There is something about even bubblegum pop music in French that is unique and seductive, and once you realise how much you like Johnny Hallyday after all, you can start thinking once more about Serge Gainsborough, Jane Birkin and indeed the gorgeous Patricia Kaas (who is coming here soon).
There may be nothing too natural-looking about vampiric Johnny, though he's the sweetest little kid next door compared to members of the small Danish community who lock their doors against a suspected paedophile in the stunning new film, The Hunt, from Thomas Vinterburg, whose Festen became a hit play on the West End stage.
You can easily imagine a theatrical version of The Hunt, but of course once you know what it's about - which I didn't when I went to see it at a London Film Festival screening yesterday afternoon - its impact will be diminished. Festen made the name, really, of Rufus Norris, the stage director - whose debut feature film, Broken, is also in the LFF this year - but the play was never a patch on the movie.
The Hunt couldn't be better, or more excruciatingly, timed, as hysteria mounts over the child abuse allegations surrounding the late Jimmy Savile, a disc jockey who is said to have used his charitable work in hospitals as a shield to exploitative sexual behaviour.
The film shows brilliantly how difficult it is to establish the verity of evidence, especially children's evidence, and how quickly the bush fire burns once the seeds of doubt are planted. In one of the most remarkable and controlled film performances you'll ever see, Mads Mikkelson plays a heterosexual kindergarten teacher whose sanity is breached and his life ruined when he gets caught up in a community's suspicions.
The film is a witch hunt on a par with Arthur Miller's masterpiece of sexual and political hysteria, The Crucible, and will become, I'm sure, just as fulsomely acclaimed and widely discussed a work of art as that great play. Mind you, as I know to my cost, you can never have any rational sort of discussion about sex and children, which remains an area of absolute taboo, probably correctly. But I still worry about the rampant righteousness over Jimmy Savile, especially as he's so thoroughly dead.
The great thing about The Hunt is that the film does contain a redemption of sorts, and lessons in charity. And I won't be the first, or last, to observe the uncanny, accidental physical and facial likeness of Mads Mikkelson to Chris Langham, the brilliant actor and writer, whose career has been destroyed by an aghast and righteous media (including the cowardly BBC) despite having been cleared of all charges of being a paedophile, and having served his punishment for "the mistake" of downloading child pornography.