The year is 1997, the setting is France in the small French village of Cressy-la-Valoise, and a young lady seeks out an elderly gentleman living in what she describes as a “museum-like mansion”. What does this young lady called Adeline Jourd want with this skinny, hunched over, chain-smoking, ill, balding old man? This man, who is now a recluse, is Julien Dubois (known professionally as Eric Bonjour) was a professional musician who began his career in childhood as a classical pianist. With unanswered questions about his career and life, Jourd, who explains that she is from the French newspaper Le Monde seeks out these answers.
Dubois initially dismisses Adeline. With a combination of patience, being respectful, her thorough research, musical ability and mostly, persistence; Julien allows Adeline to ask him questions, and he answers her over a period of several days, offering her a retrospective of his life beginning when he was ten years old in 1933.
Dubois recalls having a comfortable middle-class lifestyle but an unloving home life. His mother taught him to play the piano for over ten hours each day. His mother taught him well enough so he could enter the National Championship. At this concert, he would encounter another ten-year-old boy: François Samson who from this moment on Dubois would admire, hate and envy. Unlike Dubois, Samson was poor and didn’t have a piano to practice on and was the cleaner’s son who worked at the theatre and was hosting the championship. Dubois knew by the way François opened with Chopin’s Opus 10, No 1 “La Cascade” and played all of Chopin’s 27 études (a short musical composition, typically for one instrument, designed as an exercise to improve the technique or demonstrate the skill of the player) that François was better than him. Dubois’ mother knew this too and bribed the officials to ensure Dubois won.
Following the competition, Dubois was tutored by Hubert Triton who would teach young Julien to win more competitions and remind him that he didn’t have Samson’s talent. Triton would provide Julien with fame and fortune by reinventing him in adulthood. The novel then skips to 1940 when Germany invaded France when Julien’s mum has an affair with a Herr Joseph Berchtold, and young Dubois has to play concerts for Nazi officers. Disgusted with this situation, Dubois decides to leave home and quickly becomes homeless but is helped by two homeless men: the stuttering Flea and Napoleon. They take him to a convent where Dubois’ piano skills are witnessed.
With practice and financial support from a wealthy benefactor, Julien finds the courage to enter the national championship again. Dubois should have finished second again behind Samson, who had also entered this competition, but Samson forfeits his win by making a powerful protest against the German occupation, which resulted in Samson being imprisoned in concentration camps where he was forced to conduct an orchestra of prisoners to survive.
Following World War Two, Herr Berchtold escapes Germany taking Julien’s mothers’ savings with him, and because of Julien’s mum’s association with a Nazi, no one wants to hear him perform. At this point, Triton steps in and becomes Dubois manager and rebrands him as Eric Bonjour by making songs which Julien describes as “deeply banal”, which resolves his financial woes but leaves a void in his life which he tries but fails to fulfil with drugs and affairs with women (including Samson’s wife!). To make things worse, every time Bonjour released another “mediocre album”, Samson “released another masterpiece”.
Triton reminded him that in order to have a career, “music is not that important!” Dubois eventually attempts suicide. Triton covers this up by telling the press this was a “gardening accident”, which is believed. Shortly afterwards, Julien’s mother and Triton are out of his life, and he is now financially independent and in a position to try and find himself again, remember who he was and the people who helped him and cared for him.
You may have noticed that something, or more precisely someone important, has not been mentioned yet: Sophie. Who is Sophie? What is her role within this graphic novel? A great book keeps you in suspense and reading until you find out who the character in the title is and their role within the story. “Ballad for Sophie” keeps you so excited and enamoured with the characters presented to you one simply forgets about Sophie who is only revealed in the concluding chapter where the reader finds that there is more to the “Ballad for Sophie” than it being the title of the only original composition Dubois has written.
The process where Dubois allows himself to become more vulnerable and display his adroit sense of humour as he opens up to Adeline is emotive and intelligent. The emotions, feelings and power hierarchy between the characters are revealed not merely in facial expressions; but in body language, mannerisms and posture. The best example is how Triton is the only human character to be depicted as a goat to show his demonstrativeness. Juan Cavla deserves credit for this.
The storyboard for “Ballad for Sophie” is superbly brought together by Filipe Melo, who himself is a pianist, composer, orchestrator and music teacher. His greatest skill lies in not demonstrating, but by holding back much of his musical knowledge about composers and their works and the technicalities that go with them to allow “Ballad for Sophie” to shine as a “drama of a rock & roll biopic (with)… more twists than a night at the opera”.