Johnny goes to Hallywood

France's veteran rock star hopes to conquer the US at last, writes John Lichfield
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The Independent Culture

After more than half a century of being ignored by Anglo-Saxon popular culture, Johnny is going to Hollywood, or perhaps Hallywood.

Quentin Tarantino has asked the indestructible French rock star Johnny Hallyday, 66, to appear in a movie, possibly next year. The French legend, once described by USA Today as "the biggest rock star you never heard of", is also considering an offer by the Coen brothers. "Quentin Tarantino is writing a screenplay for me but I haven't read it yet," Hallyday told the newspaper Le Parisien. "I am also going to meet the Coen brothers, who have approached my agent."

The director of Reservoir Dogs and Inglourious Basterds is said to have been bowled over by Hallyday's performance as an ageing gangster in Vengeance, a thriller by the Chinese director Johnnie To, which was shown at the Cannes film festival in May. Tarantino had dinner with the French star during the festival and they agreed in principle to make a movie together.

To appear in a Hollywood movie would be a final consecration for Johnny Hallyday, who has become a French national hero by reworking every passing style of American and British pop music since 1958. He has appeared in 30 French films, usually as either a pop star or a gangster. He has never previously made a film in his spiritual homeland, and recent, occasional country of domicile, the United States. "Johnny" – as he is universally known in the French-speaking world – is completing his latest, final, farewell concert tour of France, which is called Tour 66, after his age and the transcontinental highway of American rock legend. Between concerts, he spends much of his time in Los Angeles, where his two adopted Vietnamese daughters, Jade and Joy, aged five and two, are in school and kindergarten.

While in the United States, he revealed earlier this year, he likes to ride a Harley-Davidson through the Californian desert and to stay overnight incognito in small motels.

There has, until now, been little danger of him being recognised in the California boondocks. After 51 years in the rock business, 900 recorded songs, 100 live tours, four wives, two children, two grandchildren, two adopted children, two suicide attempts and 30 movies, Johnny's popularity is restricted almost entirely to the French-speaking world.

Quentin Tarantino, unusual for an American film executive in being a connoisseur of foreign movies, appears to be one exception to that rule. According to Paris Match, he admired Johnny Hallyday as an actor long before he saw him in Vengeance in Cannes earlier this year.

Tarantino is a fan of the now reclusive French "New Wave" director Jean-Luc Godard. He apparently first discovered Johnny Hallyday in Godard's film Detective (1984).

In an interview with Match yesterday, Hallyday said: "I have two or three [movie] proposals which interest me, including one which Tarantino is writing. We met in Cannes after [Vengeance] was shown. He said he adored the movie and wanted us to work together."

Hallyday's "final" tour has been marked by scares about his health. He had an operation for colon cancer last summer. He had to take the stage pumped with painkilling drugs after he dislocated his hip when he slipped on the deck of a yacht in Saint-Tropez in July. He admitted in his interview with Le Parisien that he has had, finally, to face up to his own mortality.

"They told me that [after the cancer operation], they had difficulties waking me up ... That sent shivers down my spine. My daughters are very small. I've had a good life but I would like to see them grow up. They need a Daddy."

Hallyday: A rocking life

* Born in Paris in 1943, Jean-Phillippe Smet was abandoned by his parents and raised by his aunt and cousins.

* Inspired by Elvis Presley, he began singing covers of American rock'n'roll songs in clubs, and was snapped up by Vogue Records. He took the name Johnny Hallyday and released his first album, Hello Johnny, in 1960.

* By 1962 he was France's highest-paid music star.

* He has sold more than 100 million records and in 1997 was awarded the Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur by President Jacques Chirac.