From eulogizing Anwar Sadat in song to sharing laughs onscreen with Jerry Lewis, five North African Jewish immigrants revolutionized French pop culture. Their impact from the 1960s through the ’80s is now being further immortalized in a new documentary, “Les Magnifiques.”
Algerian-born singer Enrico Macias became an international pop star. Philippe Clair of Morocco and Robert Castel of Algeria mastered the art of comedy. Tunisian producers Norbert Saada and Régis Talar excelled at finding talent.
“These five Magnifiques are part of the life of France, even if sometimes we ignore it,” Yves Azeroual, who co-directed the film with Mathieu Alterman, wrote in an email. “Through this film I wanted to pay homage to their work, their talent and also their tenacity.”
Azeroual and Alterman both have careers in French journalism. Azeroual is also an author and documentary filmmaker whose subjects have included the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
“Les Magnifiques” made its international premiere at the New York Sephardic Film Festival in March. Azeroual said that its five subjects “were very honored that we salute their work. And everyone was proud to be in the same movie as the other four.”
The film begins with the co-stars meeting for dinner at the famed Paris restaurant, La Boule Rouge. Over fig liqueur, the five reflect back on successful lives that all got their start in French North Africa.
Macias and Castel grew up in musical families, connected to sounds rooted in Muslim Spain and the Middle East popular with Algeria’s indigenous Jewish and Muslim communities. Macias (born Gaston Ghrenassia in Constantine) played the guitar in the same orchestra as his father, violinist Sylvain Ghrenassia, and was mentored by his father-in-law, orchestra leader Cheikh Raymond Leyris.
Castel’s father was noted singer Lili Labassi; their original family name was Moyal.
Clair — or Prosper Bensoussan, as he was known then — recalled life in a Moroccan village of only 40 inhabitants. Saada is from Gabės, Tunisia, while Talar is from Sousse, which the film describes as Tunisia’s intellectual capital.
The atmosphere in the Maghreb changed from coexistence to tension in the 1950s and 1960s as France’s North African colonies won independence — Algeria achieving it through a bloody war that lasted from 1954 to 1962. Tragically, in 1961, Macias’s mentor Cheikh Raymond was assassinated in Constantine.
Azeroual said that all five Magnifiques “have been forced to leave their homeland because they were Jews. France was the homeland of their language, and so naturally they chose to settle there.”
Most of the Magnifiques changed their names to ones that Azeroual described as sounding “more French.” Castel chose a name that sounded like “Cristal.” Clair wished to evoke French filmmaker René Clair. The Magnifiques wanted to blend into the mass, Azeroual said — adding that “it is also becoming aware that racism can also appear. We want to look like the majority [of people]. Most of them remained Jewish at home and French abroad.”
In their new country, some had to abandon old talents. University of Arkansas anthropology professor Ted Swedenburg — whose interests include Andalusian music by Jewish Algerian performers — cites Macias’s initial attempt to pursue his father’s style of music in France.
“Racism against Arab culture did not allow that to happen,” Swedenburg said. “He picks up another genre — the chanson genre. He becomes an immediate star really quickly playing that kind of music.”
French audiences took to titles like “Paris, tu m’as pris dans tes bras.” Yet Macias also succeeded with North African-influenced songs such “J’ai quitté mon pays,” an ode to his homeland that, he says in the film, made him at age 23 the voice of millions of pied-noirs (literally “black feet,” a term for the former French settlers).
Macias acquired international recognition, performing at Carnegie Hall in 1968 and meeting fellow star Harry Belafonte. After Israel’s 1967 Six-Day War, he appeared at the Western Wall with Moshe Dayan, which Swedenburg cites as the reason for Macias’s name on the Arab boycott list. But during the 1960s, while Swedenburg was living in Beirut, it was possible to listen to Macias’s music, he said, adding that “people would have his records throughout the Arab world.”
After the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, Macias traveled to Ismailia for a 1979 concert, meeting Sadat and his wife Jehan. Two years later, Macias somberly performed his tribute to the slain Sadat, “Un berger vient de tomber.”
As Macias was winning an international following, the other Magnifiques earned renown in France.
Castel became a familiar face on film and TV, including with his late wife, Lucette Sahuquet, who also had roots in French North Africa. He appeared as secret agent Georghiu in the 1972 comedy “Le grand blond avec une chaussure noire” (The Tall Man with One Black Shoe). Clair had audiences laughing with such films as a 1973 parody of Hitler, “Le fuhrer en folie.” A decade later, in 1984, he appeared with French icon Jerry Lewis in “Par où t’es rentré? On t’a pas vu sortir” (How Did You Get In? We Didn’t See You Leave).
Saada and Talar found success as music producers under the Barclay label. Talar is credited with discovering star Michel Sardou, while Saada introduced Belgian singer Jacques Brel to the Beatles. They branched out into new ventures: Talar founded a new label, Tréma, while Saada became a film producer. According to Les Magnifiques, he worked on several projects with the acclaimed Sergio Leone and, separately, on the 1976 Holocaust drama “Monsieur Klein.”
“These five Magnifiques were not only creators but they knew how to anticipate fashion in cultural matters,” Azeroual said. “They have inspired until today dozens of singers, directors, comedians.”
One of those, believes Azeroual, is French comedic star Gad Elmaleh, who was born in Morocco and recently set his sights on US audiences, as well.
Some of the Magnifiques are reconnecting with their heritage through music. Castel is performing with the El Gusto Orchestra, a collaboration between Algerian Jewish and Muslim musicians. Swedenburg saw the orchestra perform five years ago in Washington, DC, calling it “really terrific.” Swedenburg also points to Macias’s tribute to his late mentor Cheikh Raymond, recorded with Tunisian musician Taoufik Bestandji in 1999.
Macias’s desire to visit Algeria has been unsuccessful. An invitation to perform from then-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika “was not possible because of some who see a problem there,” said Jérémy Guedj, a scholar of the Mediterranean at the Université de Nice-Sophia Antipolis. “He is linked with Israel and close to Israel. Some people in Algeria do not want him to come because of that.”
Ironically, Swedenburg noted that Macias once met with Yasser Arafat and expressed support for a Palestinian state, and that despite protests outside his concerts in France, there were both Jews and Muslims in the audiences.
All five Magnifiques continue to attract audiences in their adopted homeland, where they have brought what Azeroual calls “the sun and their joie de vivre” to French culture.
“For the Jews of North Africa, it is a part of their memory; for others a lesson of courage, daring and truth,” he said.