Vive Johnny Hallyday!
Did nearly dying at an L.A. hospital give new life to beloved French rocker Johnny Hallyday’s career? Eric Pape on why Quentin Tarantino wants to make a movie with the French Elvis.
What does iconic French rocker Johnny Hallyday—who just emerged from a medically induced coma at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles—need to do to make it in America?
Since swiveling his way to stardom as the 17-year-old French Elvis, the hardest-working man in le showbiz has been through it all. During his 50-year career, Hallyday has collapsed mid-performance, broken a leg falling into an orchestra pit, and survived the requisite car crash. A little 21st-century Hollywood flavor? He and his young wife adopted a pair of children from Vietnam, and he’s made several forays into French cinema. And of course there have been the sex scandals and premature reports of his death (including one this week by Paris Match’s Web site). Now 66, Hallyday is more than a musical icon; he is a national institution and that is why it is so hard for his French fans, friends, and colleagues to imagine a world without him. (French President Nicolas Sarkozy himself recently said that Hallyday "represents for each one of us a part of our personal history.") Johnny—like the America that has so inspired him—has always surprised his fans with his extraordinary capacity for renewal. The irony is that Americans have never really paid attention.
In France, being blamed for the near death of Johnny Hallyday is up there with the allegations against Michael Jackson’s doctor (and the multimillion-dollar insurance issues are remarkably similar).
But there is a chance that could finally change with the medical saga that is playing out in Hallyday’s adopted city of Los Angeles. Just five days after an operation for a herniated disc in Paris on November 26, he flew to L.A., but intense pain led him to Cedars-Sinai hospital where doctors discovered an infection. On December 7, they undertook an urgent operation that was followed by two medically induced comas, from which he emerged Tuesday. (“All right now, let’s go,” he reportedly said to his wife shortly after waking up.) His French fans will tell you that this sort of thing just doesn’t happen to Johnny, who may have spent much of his career aping the King, but his bullish touring ethic (and his devoted working-class fans) have traditionally been more similar to those of the Boss. Increasing signs of Hallyday’s mortality have spurred confusion, disorientation, and anger among the faithful.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Johnny was supposed to complete his last vigorous big-money mega-tour, entitled Tour 66 (named for the iconic American route and for the rocker’s age) and then enjoy collaborations with legendary American film directors who might finally endear him to the American public. Instead, the tour faced repeated delays after Hallyday fell off of his yacht in July and spent nine days in the hospital. Months later, he underwent surgery for colon cancer and a subsequent infection. But tremendous attention is now being focused on the November back surgery. His producer Jean-Claude Camus has been trashing the controversial French surgeon, Dr. Stéphane Delajoux, at every turn. On RTL radio, Camus claimed that doctors at Cedars-Sinai were “outraged” by the work of Dr. Delajoux, who oversaw the original back surgery. Camus argued that Delajoux let Hallyday leave the hospital the next day without proper followup and authorized an 11-hour flight to Los Angeles just four days later. But by December 7, doctors at Cedars were urgently re-operating on Hallyday. Camus suggested that they were working to protect Johnny’s spinal cord. The producer promised a legal complaint about Delajoux this week and he called the back surgery “a massacre.”
In France, being blamed for the near death of Johnny Hallyday is up there with the allegations against Michael Jackson’s doctor (and the multimillion-dollar insurance issues are remarkably similar). But it is hardly the first time that Delajoux has been the center of a scandal. The hunky “neurosurgeon of the stars” has dated French movie star Isabelle Adjani, and operated on a who’s who of celebrities, including beloved ingénue singer-actress Charlotte Gainsbourg (to relieve cerebral hemorrhaging) and actress Marie Trintignant (after she was beaten by her brooding rock-star boyfriend, Bertrand Cantat). Trintignant died days after that surgery, and Cantat was later sentenced to eight years in prison for murder. Why would Hallyday seek the care of such a doctor? The answer might be in France’s celebrity press reports that Johnny’s starlet daughter, Laura Smet, dates Dr. Delajoux’s brother.
In all of these instances, Dr. Delajoux insists that he did nothing wrong, although he has a messy medical and legal history. French courts have reportedly required him to pay out more than $560,000 to a total of four patients for medical errors, while several additional complaints loom. Courts have found him “fully responsible” for partially disabling one woman, as well as guilty of post-operative mistakes and even an “inappropriate surgical intervention.” A French court also convicted Dr. Delajoux of insurance fraud after he pretended that injuries he suffered off-piste skiing (which is uninsured) were the result of a staged accident in Paris, as he angled for more than $2 million in insurance. That time, a court gave him a three-year suspended prison sentence and a $60,000 fine, and he was banned from practicing medicine for six months (although the French medical association’s lawyer recently alleged that the doctor violated that suspension).
Still, you don’t mess with Johnny Hallyday. On the night of December 11, Dr. Delajoux was walking in Paris’ generally wealthy and very safe 17th arrondissement with his two children. According to his attorney, two masked men suddenly approached the doctor and punched him in the face as part of a broader beating. The next day, accompanied by a pair of bodyguards, the doctor wore an eye cover and had a bandaged hand. Even if he seems like the kind of guy who may have angered plenty of people in his life, his attorney asserted that the alleged attack was the result of a “manhunt” driven by the accusations in relation to Hallyday’s care.
Regardless of any responsibility Dr. Delajoux might have, France’s greatest living musical icon isn’t the man he used to be. In this week’s edition of French Elle magazine, Hallyday’s wife, Laeticia, noted that while doctors caught his prostate cancer early this summer, she acknowledged that for 48 hours his life was in danger then, too.
There is a cruel irony to Hallyday’s most recent health scare: Johnny has long craved fame in the land that has inspired nearly his entire career—America—but he has never managed to achieve it. This, despite singing with New World stars like Jon Bon Jovi and Céline Dion, recording in Nashville and Memphis, and even performing for Jackie O. He’s also covered an array of tunes by the King, Bob Seger, and even Jimi Hendrix, among others. Nor did it put him over the top when he began spending more time in Los Angeles or when he shot a video for the English-language song, “I Am the Blues,” which Bono apparently wrote for him. (See Johnny cruise his Harley around Malibu and Hollywood—and stops at Carney’s train-car diner on the Sunset Strip for a burger as he sings, “You’re not even as old… as my tattoos.”
Nothing, it seemed, could help Hallyday to fulfill his American Dream—at least not until he attended last summer’s Cannes Film Festival, where he met Quentin Tarantino, a director known for restoring respect to the careers of performers (John Travolta, Bruce Willis, Pam Grier, and David Carradine, to name a few). Tarantino, Hallyday recently claimed, is creating a role for him in his next film.
But perhaps Hallyday’s near-death experience may finally bring him attention in America. After all, he is being cared for at a hospital famous for treating everyone from Leonardo DiCaprio and Madonna to Michael Jackson and Liz Taylor, even as paparazzi camp on the street in front of Cedars-Sinai and in the international terminal of LAX to jostle for position as Johnny’s celebrity friends and family arrive. Yes, they are French—and Americans keep asking them who all the fuss is all about—but Hallyday’s American rocker life has always been somehow distilled through a surprising French filter that is somewhat incomprehensible to the country that inspired him. In “I Am the Blues,” perhaps that is why he sings: “I’m as blue as the Côte d'Azur/and both of us are not so pure.”
So even if America never truly loves Johnny Hallyday, France will always want more.
Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek Magazine since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel Shake Girl. He has written for the Los Angeles Times magazine, Spin, Reader's Digest, Vibe, Courrier International, Salon, and Los Angeles from five continents. He is based in Paris. Follow him at twitter.com/ericpape