France Says Vive Edith Piaf, One More Time

A new film — as well as several recently published books — have introduced a younger generation of French citizens to Edith Piaf, the singer nicknamed "the Sparrow." She was only 47 when she died of cancer in 1963.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Just in case you don't recognize that voice, it's Edith Piaf, the diminutive French singer whose dramatic life story, even more dramatic stage presence, made her a legend. Abandoned by her parents, she spent much of her childhood in her grandmother's brothel in Normandy. After a serious car accident in her mid-30s she became addicted to morphine until the end of her life. She died of cancer in 1963, when she was just 47 years old. In France, Piaf continues to enjoy a huge following among older generations, but this year, thanks to a new French movie about her life, the entire country seems to be swooning on Piaf nostalgia. Anita Elash reports from Paris.

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ANITA ELASH: There's nothing like a sing-along to get your heart racing. On a recent evening, the Theatre Marini(ph) is packed to the rafters with lovers of Edith Piaf. They're singing along with Natalie Lhermitte, the lead in the play "Piaf: A life in Pink and Black." The big surprise is that most of the audience looks like they're under 40. Edith Piaf had already been dead for 10 years when Celine Kongeur(ph) first heard her sing.

Ms. CELINE KONGEUR: (Through translator) I must have been seven or eight years old. My grandmother played it for me. It was the song "My Legionnaire." I adored it because my father worked with the French Foreign Legion. And it was a symbol for me. So I really loved it.

ELASH: She says Piaf sang along in the background of her life until a few weeks ago. Then she went to see "La Mome," the new film about Piaf. After that she felt she had to learn everything about the singer. That sort of reaction delights Natalie Lhermitte. After two years of struggling, her production is playing to packed houses.

Ms. NATALIE LHERMITTE (Singer): People used to say, oh, Edith Piaf, it's a little old-fashioned, and it's not true at all. But the film put Edith Piaf at the top. So now Edith Piaf is ala mode.

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ELASH: The movie "La Mome" stars a young French actress, Marion Cotillard, who undergoes an amazing transformation from the teenage Piaf singing on the streets of Montmartre to the worn out shell of the morphine-addicted singer when she died. Cotillard portrays Piaf's life in all its tragic glory - the myth that she was born on the streets of Paris, her childhood in a brothel, and her many ill-fated love affairs.

It's a French production. The director, Olivier Dahan, couldn't get backing from Hollywood because no one thought Piaf was bankable. Now the film is raking it in at the box office.

Like the play, the movie is attracting a lot of younger people. The young moviegoers outside a cinema in Les Halles district of downtown Paris say they don't know much about Piaf, but she's part of their cultural heritage. So they've come to find out what it is their parents have been talking about all these years.

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ELASH: For real Piaf fans, young and old, there are plenty more tributes around these days. There are two new biographies, a second play this summer, a comic book illustrating Piaf's lyrics, and even a perfume. Jean Dominique Grillard(ph) wrote the biography "Edith Piaf."

Mr. JEAN DOMINIQUE GRILLARD (Author): Piaf was a lover of love. Her life is a romantic life. And I think one of the reasons why people continue to love her is because of this romantic side that, as I mention, in her life.

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ELASH: North American audiences will get their chance to start swooning over Piaf again in a few months. "La Mome" opens across the United States on June 8th. For NPR News, I'm Anita Elash in Paris.

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