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A new biopic of 'La Vie En Rose' singer Edith Piaf will use AI to recreate her voice

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

First Anthony Bourdain, then the Beatles, now Edith Piaf - mon Dieu.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA VIE EN ROSE")

EDITH PIAF: (Singing in French).

SIMON: Warner Music says it will use artificial intelligence to recreate Edith Piaf's iconic voice and image in an upcoming biopic. We sent reporter Rebecca Rosman on a journey around Edith Piaf's working-class Paris neighborhood to try to find out what AI might struggle to capture.

REBECCA ROSMAN, BYLINE: Bernard Marchois was 17 years old, kind of shy, but he wasn't going to let a little bit of introversion stop him from meeting his favorite singer.

BERNARD MARCHOIS: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: "I met her one day at the Olympia," he says. It was 1958, and he had bought a ticket to see Edith Piaf at one of Paris's most famous venues. She was a global cabaret superstar who had performed at Carnegie Hall and on "The Ed Sullivan Show." So when he built up the courage to pass by Piaf's dressing room after the show, she couldn't help but notice how young he was.

MARCHOIS: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: "And so she told me," he says, "next time you want to come see me perform, come by the artists entrance, and I'll let you in."

MARCHOIS: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: "And that's exactly what I did," he says. And then a friendship developed, which lasted for five years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MON DIEU")

PIAF: (Singing in French).

ROSMAN: After her death at only 47 years old, Marchois and Piaf's widower opened a museum in Piaf's modest apartment, where her music is always playing in the background.

MARCHOIS: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: "I never get tired of her voice," he says. "I listen to Piaf all day, and it doesn't bother me at all." And what if her voice was recreated using AI?

MARCHOIS: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: "I'm a little opposed," he says. "Even if it's very, very well done, I'll always have the feeling that it's a machine working behind the scenes."

MARCHOIS: (Speaking French).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MON DIEU")

PIAF: (Singing in French).

ROSMAN: Warner Music Group is partnering with Piaf's estate to produce a film about her life. Its director, Julie Veille, declined to be interviewed, but a press release says she will use AI to recreate Piaf's face and voice to narrate the film. It will surely be judged in the working-class neighborhood of Belleville, where Piaf was born and raised. Safeguarding their local legend is a sacred and selective art. Here at Au Vieux Belleville, a lively cabaret restaurant and bar, singer Minelle Guy waltzes from table to table with her accordion as diners sing along.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in French).

ROSMAN: Guy, who's 76, recently celebrated her 31st year performing here. But she admits singing Edith Piaf songs makes her a bit uneasy.

MINELLE GUY: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: "I don't have her voice," she says. Edith Piaf's songs are beautiful when she sings them, but when other people try, it's not the same.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in French).

ROSMAN: When Piaf started singing at only 14 years old, it was often about love, life and loss on the streets in this scruffy, bohemian and multiethnic neighborhood. Even after she left, it informed her art, and she chose to be buried here. Walking near her gravestone in the 97th division of the Pere Lachaise cemetery is 87-year-old Jacques LeBlanc. He tells me he had the opportunity to hear Piaf in person twice.

JACQUES LEBLANC: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: "She was certainly one of France's most famous and important singers," he says.

OK, here she is. There's a little plaque on top of her gravestone, and it says, (speaking French), which translates to your songs are still relevant. Standing with LeBlanc near Piaf's grave, I asked him what he thinks about using AI to recreate her voice.

LEBLANC: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: "No, I don't think so," he says matter-of-factly. He heads over to her grave, pauses briefly and walks away.

For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Rosman in Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA VIE EN ROSE")

PIAF: (Singing in French). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rebecca Rosman