Fabrice is a big - perhaps the biggest - fan of Jean-Philippe Smet, better known as Johnny Hallyday, the greatest rocker France has ever produced.Fabrice is a big - perhaps the biggest - fan of Jean-Philippe Smet, better known as Johnny Hallyday, the greatest rocker France has ever produced.Fabrice is a big - perhaps the biggest - fan of Jean-Philippe Smet, better known as Johnny Hallyday, the greatest rocker France has ever produced.
"Jean Philippe" is what I call a 'what if' movie, what if you lived the same day over and over? What if you were paid one million dollars to let your wife sleep with a stranger? What if you could be someone else? Movies that take one simple sentence to be summed up and with the kind of premise any viewer with a minimum luggage of curiosity would give a chance to.
The "What if" question here is more likely to appeal to a French audience: what if Jean Philippe Smet better known as Johnny Halliday, even better known as "Johnny", didn't exist? Well, if there was one French artist who was the perfect candidate to that question, it certainly is Johnny, the most iconic of all, the emblematic figure of the baby-boom generation, from a teenager idol channeling Elvis and James Dean to a biker's idol. He's probably the singer with the most vocal and passionate fans, some who followed him from the start, some who got the Johnny virus transmitted by the family.
Luchini plays one of these fans, but to say that he transmitted the virus to his wife and daughter, named Laura like Johnny's, wouldn't reflect the reality. But to call Fabrice (that's his name) a fan would be the understatement of the year, Johnny isn't just an idol, he's a full-time dedication, a budget too, any disc, prop or object loosely related to the idol is good enough for the "Johnny room", a sort of sanctuary full of discs, relics, and the collectibles they make a fortune out in "Pawn Stars". And the passion naturally transcends the limits of the room, Fabrice listens to Johnny, talks Johnny and breaths Johnny every minute of the day, and there was no better actor than Luchini to convey that level of "mental" passion.
Indeed, the actor is famous for going into long eloquent tirades, and get passionate about the most banal stuff. His verbal delirium outbursts are perhaps his most famous trademarks, a blessing for impersonators, and when it mixes with the passion for Johnny, the tone is set the most effectively. In the pivotal scene, e he can't stop singing Johnny's hit songs at night in a peaceful neighborhood, and gets immediately punched in the face. When he wakes up, something changed in the "air". Anyone wouldn't have noticed it after a few days, but it takes a Johnny hardcore fan to immediately spot a world where his idol doesn't exist.
Luchini is the first reason the film works. It's not just the premise, if Johnny doesn't exist, well, that hardly changes the face of earth, one must find a way to make the consequences of his inexistence cinematically tangible, so the fan's perspective is the right one. And It's fun to have people saying "who's Johnny?" and test Fabrice's suspension of disbelief, but a succession of baffled reactions doesn't drive a film for too long and the screenwriter knew it. Fabrice tries to understand why Johnny seems to have vanished from existence after that knockout punch and then realizes he's in a world where Hallyday didn't exist, but not in the sense that Jean-Philippe Smet wouldn't exist as well.
And this is where the film reveals its subtler touch, it's not about Halliday not existing but about Jean Philippe Smet not making it in stardom, for some reason, Fabrice intuitively guesses that Jean Phillipe does exist and that has somewhat influenced his own life (starting with his daughter's name). Fabrice searches for Johnny, learns why he didn't make it and does his best to launch his career. The underlying message seems that it's never too late to be what we were meant to be and it's a positive one although a bit predictable. It's also fun to see Fabrice trying to gain the trust of Jean Philippe, played with the perfect dose of realism and sympathy by the rocker.
Seeing Johnny being himself while totally oblivious to the kind of phenomenon he would have been adds a dimension of poignancy and sensitiveness in the character, as if he might have wished to live a simpler life or have a taste of it. The film is never as good as when it tones down the whole celebration of Johnny and becomes a more intimate introspection into the real-life counterpart Jean Philippe. It is later revealed why Jean Philippe didn't become Johnny but in reality, no failed audition or accident could have prevented him from becoming what he was born to be: a legend and the film is so aware of its awareness it follows it rather than dares to contradict it, wouldn't it have been more interesting to draw Fabrice toward's Johnny's idea of himself than having Jean-Philippe becoming Johnny.
It's like the film had to have that great finale but while the climactic performance of Johnny is a great moment, it is played in a kind of rush followed by ten final minutes that feel like false notes, as if the whole thing was just "a joke". But despite the clumsy ending, watching the film in the context of Johnny's passing kind of erases this little flaw and elevates the film as the best cinematic tribute to the singer. Johnny was such a prevalent figure he became one of those people you couldn't imagine dying one day, so it took everyone by surprise when, on a sad December morning, France was an orphan of its greatest legend.
No one could imagine him dead, but who said he was dead? His legacy would live forever and while not physically present, he'll still be here. And that's one of the aspect of Johnny's charisma the film demonstrates quite well, thanks to Luchini's exuberant but sensitive performance, even in a world when he's not present, we felt his presence when he was desperately telling people he existed. Johnny could exist on his own, through one fan, let alone millions and millions.
- Dec 30, 2017