Johnny Hallyday needs no introduction to the French speaking world, but despite a career that is now over fifty years old you can still not assume that anglophones have even heard of him. Those that have tend to be a bit bemused. Back in the early sixties Johnny Hallyday made the momentous decision to sing songs in the style of Elvis Presley but in French. It was a sensation, and he has never looked back. He rapidly became a huge star in France and has remained one ever since. Only a few years ago a concert in Paris had half a million people trying to get tickets. In the days when these things mattered, his records sold in the millions. In pure numerical terms his sales make him one of the major figures of the rock world. When you consider that his success is limited geographically to France, Belgium and parts of Switzerland and Canada it is even more remarkable.
Having listened to some of his music I have to say I simply fail to see what all the fuss is about. But I am cautious about dismissing him as simply the guy who got lucky by being the first Frenchman to don a leather jacket and sing rock and roll. It is hard to see how that alone could have sustained his career for half a century. He has moved with the times and responded to changes in musical times. And while he does have a remarkably consistent track record of commercial success it simply isn’t the case that his public have indiscriminately sucked up whatever he has offered. Some of his work has flopped even with his compatriots. And nothing has ever flopped like Hamlet.
Hamlet is a double concept album based on the play by Shakespeare.
Concept albums have since become a byword for self indulgence, but this was the seventies and at the time there were some very successful models to follow. Sgt Pepper had opened up the field. The Who’s Tommy set a reasonably high bench mark. Jesus Christ Superstar was playing to packed houses and was still being described as a rock opera. So an adaptation of a classic play into the rock idiom probably didn’t sound as crazy an idea as it does now. It probably just sounded averagely crazy.
You can’t take away one thing from Hallyday. He has a good voice. And it is not just a good rock voice, he can manage ballads too and has quite a wide vocal range. Where it is lacking is in emotional range. In Hamlet he only has one emotional state. Melodramatic.
While that is bad, some really hackneyed orchestral sections serve to emphasise that this is full on heads down no nonsense tragedy. This is Shakespeare done shouty. The bard’s subtlety has not made it across the channel.
One of the ways this piece manages to be so one dimensional is that it is all about Hamlet himself. There is one singer and a chorus. There is no interplay with the other characters. We just get Hamlet’s reaction to them. And his reaction is inevitably to get worked up and overemotional about it. The French may have coined the word sangfroid, but they don’t need it here.
The highlight is the song To Be Or Not To Be. Hamlet considers suicide. By this point many listeners are probably doing the same.
Although most of the running time is given over to belting out the angst there are some mysterious interludes of easy listening. These baffling changes in musical style serve to prevent you from getting into the mood of the opera, in the unlikely event that you are trying to do so.
This is a work that doesn’t work as drama, and is not of much interest musically. The passage of time has not been kind to it except to turn it into period piece. In between wondering how we can get it to stop it is intriguing to ponder that there was once a time when people thought a project like this was actually a good idea.