The Johnny Hallyday who took the Albert Hall stage one night 10 years ago was the culmination of 50 years of myth-making.
The Albert Hall had never witnessed a rowdier crowd. Ten years ago South Kensington’s French contingent turned out in force to see a national legend perform in London for two nights only. Johnny Hallyday, dubbed the “French Elvis” – although it is a shorthand that hardly reflects what the bombastic, gravel-voiced, rocking balladeer meant to the French national psyche – had only performed on British soil once before, doing a brief turn at the Royal Variety Performance in 1965. After those back-to-back nights in 2012 he would never perform here again. He died five years later aged 74, unleashing a wave of national grief in France.
In Johnny Hallyday: Beyond Rock, a five-part French-made documentary series which came to Netflix this week, previously unseen archive footage allows the Gallic rock icon to tell his story in his own words from beyond the grave (its French title is simply Johnny par Johnny). The turbulent private life that made Hallyday beloved of the French gossip mags – the endless health scares, four wives and multiple affairs – is explored in the series, but its chief achievement is highlighting Hallyday’s prolific output and incredible on-stage presence as a live performer, as well as his creation of a public persona for himself which held a nation spellbound for decades.
“I’m a liar,” Hallyday says in Beyond Rock, elaborating: “I need to make myself dream. I need to believe in my lies in order to make people believe, to make them dream.”
Hallyday was both a master of his own myth and a live performer of such savage magnetism that he could indeed “make people dream”. That myth was evident at that first night at the Albert Hall…
The New European, 31 March 2022, pp. 29-31.