France's Patrick Bruel started out as a teen idol, but his accomplishments range far beyond that often temporary status. He became a leading French movie star, and has also performed in live theater. Bruel also emerged in the 1990s as a well-known figure among a group of artists who spoke out against the rise of extreme right-wing politics in France. He successfully reinvented himself several times, and Entre deux (Between Two People), an album of classic French romantic songs that he recorded in 2002, promised to make him as successful in middle age as he had been as a young phenomenon.
Bruel was born Patrick Benguigui on May 14, 1959, in Tlemcen, Algeria. He was raised by his mother, a French language teacher. Algeria was engaged in a bitter struggle to become independent from France at the time, and after the French withdrew from the country in 1962, Bruel and his mother moved to France. Bruel showed a passion for music early on, enjoying not only French pop songs but also the American and British rock artists of the era. He began playing the guitar and writing songs, and as a university student he made extra money in the summer as a club entertainer.
A newspaper advertisement inviting males with a French-Algerian accent to audition for a new film led to Bruel's initial experience as an actor. He answered the ad and was cast in the 1978 film Le coup de sirocco (A Touch of Desert Wind). Bruel sought out more film work, but his career stalled after that initial triumph, and in 1979 he headed for New York. It was the beginning of a long love affair with the city. Although he rarely recorded in English, Bruel recorded several of his albums in New York. "In New York, everything is possible," he explained to a Billboard reporter. "There is nothing like a trip there to refresh the mind. When I go there, I go as an unknown and I have all the freedom I need to compose." On this first trip, Bruel met a fellow French musician, Gérard Presgurvic; the two became close collaborators and Presgurvic would later write many of Bruel's hit songs.
Back in France, Bruel now began to land acting jobs. He appeared in two plays and reunited with director Alexandre Arcady for another film dealing with colonial Algeria, 1983's Le grand carnaval. By then Bruel, who was described by the Montreal Gazette as possessing "classic matinee-idol good looks," had taken his first shots at the recording business. His 1982 debut single "Vide" (Empty) went nowhere, but two more singles, "Marre cette nana-là" (That's Enough of That Chick) in 1984 and and "Comment ça va pour vous" (How's It Going with You) in 1985 both became hits, and made Bruel the star of the moment among French teenage girls. But instead of simply cashing in on this temporary status, Bruel continued to hone his skills as an entertainer.
Bruel released his debut album, De face (Head On) in 1986, omitting his two teen-hit singles but including a variety of original compositions he had written with Presgurvic. The album's sales were disappointing, but it nevertheless raised Bruel's profile in France's creative community. He appeared in films and plays of increasing distinction; the 1987 film Attention Bandits was directed by veteran French filmmaker Claude Lelouch, and gained international distribution.
Bruel had become a major movie star by the end of the 1980s, with a string of hit performances. An action movie titled La maison assassinée (The Murdered House) was a major smash in 1988, as was the critically acclaimed art film Force majeure (Absolute Necessity) in 1989. He continued to work on advancing his career along a dual track, signing with the giant BMG record label conglomerate. Bruel's 1989 album Alors regarde (Now Look) was recorded in New York with a combination of French and American musicians, and it quickly garnered Bruel a contingent of adult fans to add to his teenage base.
Alors regarde sold upwards of three million copies, and the album's tour in 1990 sold out arenas for nights on end. The French media began using the term "Bruelmania" to describe the reactions of the singer's adoring and mostly female fans. Although he failed to win a major French music award, he earned the Best Male Artist of the Year award at the Victoires de la Musique ceremonies in 1992.
Despite his new status as a megastar, Bruel once again refused to rest on his laurels. His 1994 album Bruel shelved his Top 40 style in favor of guitar-driven rock. Bruelmania faded as a result, but the singer became more firmly ensconsed in the French pop world, and the following year he performed at the popular Francofolies music festival with two top French-speaking African musicians, Algeria's Khaled and Senegal's Youssou N'Dour. Bruel, who was Jewish, cancelled several concerts in the south of France in 1995 to protest the election of several politicans aligned with the extreme right-wing and often openly racist National Front party.
Bruel remained closely involved with social and political issues, making several recordings and performing in support of the Meals on Wheels-like food bank program Restaurants du Coeur. His cinematic career continued with a performance in the political thriller K in 1997, and in several films that were released in the United States, including 1998's Hors jeu (Foul Play). Bruel's fan base expanded to include audiences in Asia, French-speaking Canada, Spain, and Latin America, although he did not make a full-fledged effort to conquer the English-speaking world. Bruel's 1999 album release Juste avant had sold over a million copies by late 2000, and it provided the jumping-off point for another huge and successful tour.
Entre deux, released in the summer of 2002, tapped an interest in the classic French chanson—a body of music roughly comparable to the pop standards of American music—that Bruel had held since he was a child. The album held international appeal, and reviewer Yuri German at the All Music Guide website commented that "Bruel and his arrangers managed [both] to be respectful to their source material and to come up with a new interpretation of it." On the album Bruel performed duets with French pop legends such as Charles Aznavour and the 84-year-old actress Danielle Darrieux.
Bruel toured France and Belgium once again in support of Entre deux, and as of 2004 he had two new films, Une vie à t'attendre (Your Whole Life Is Waiting) and Wolf, nearing completion. Still in his early 40s, Bruel has had a consistently successful two-decade career as a vocalist and actor, and a track record of ongoing creativity in both areas. One of the challenges remaining for Bruel is that of raising himself to the artistic level of those legends to whom he paid tribute on Entre deux.
For the Record …
Born Patrick Benguigui on May 14, 1959, in Tlemcen, Algeria; moved to France with family, 1962.
Made film debut in Le coup de sirocco, 1979; made recording debut, 1981; recorded hit album Alors regarde, 1989; had successful film career; recorded Justeavant, 2000; recorded album Entre deux in classic French chanson style, 2002.
Awards: Victoires de la musique award, 1992.
"Marre de cette nana-là" (single), 1983.
De face, Phonogram, 1986.
Alors regarde, BMG, 1989.
Si ce soir (live), BMG, 1992.
Bruel, BMG, 1994.
On s'était dit (live), BMG, 1995.
Juste avant, BMG, 1999.
Entre deux, BMG, 2002.
Billboard, January 26, 1991, p. 63; May 21, 1994, p. 8.
Gazette (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), November 14, 1992, p. E6.
Observer (London, England), June 25, 1995, p. 18.
Times (London, England), July 30, 2002, p. 15.
"Patrick Bruel," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 4, 2004).
"Patrick Bruel," Radio France International, http://www.rfimusique.com (March 4, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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