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In 1990, the fall of European pop duo Milli Vanilli seemed like an open-and-closed case of disgrace.
They – Fabrice Morvan and Rob Pilatus – were the lip-syncing scoffers, convicted by the court of public opinion of defrauding a generation of Top 40 FM radio listeners robbed of our precious sense that music and its artistic authorship were directly connected. The punishment? Lifelong professional ostracism and punchline status, though when Pilatus died of an accidental drug overdose in 1998, the reality became even more punishing.
Cyndi Lauper on new documentary, LGBTQ fans and disliking her first recording of ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’: ‘It was like yawning and boring’
Fly intriguingly rather than land decisively.
Place: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Director: Luke Korem
1 hour and 46 minutes
Luke Korem’s new documentary Milli Vanilli attempts to give non-singers of “Blame It on the Rain” 106 minutes of reevaluation. Were they perpetrators or victims? If they were a gradation of the latter, who were the real villains? If it was a gradation of the former, did the punishment fit the crime? What did Rob and Fab actually do, what was their real sin, and why did the public respond the way they did?
Perhaps Korem’s main goal is simply to make you think about Milli Vanilli more than you ever have before. In this, it is a total success. It’s more of a fail when it comes to trying to answer some of those big questions and committing to direct accountability, and I don’t know if I buy most of its cultural conclusions. But have I thought a lot about Milli Vanilli since I saw this documentary?
Reader, you know it’s true.
To recap: In 1989 and 1990, a French-German duo took the American charts by storm. Their songs were very catchy. Were they already a bit silly? Heavens yes, but when has anyone ever bothered about this before? People started to worry when Milli Vanilli won the Grammy for Best New Artist in 1990, defeating Indigo Girls, Tone Loc, Neneh Cherry and Soul II Soul. This was an affront to our general decency, as no goofy or disreputable artist had ever won a Grammy before. I’m guessing.
A few months after that win, it was revealed that Rob and Fab didn’t sing on their hit album. Horror ensued and the name ‘Milli Vanilli’ was never able to recover its former glory.
Said with more tonal sincerity than your average Behind the music episode, but without a particular voice of its own except that of “general seriousness” (that is to say, it is neither sensationalist nor mocking), Milli Vanilli boasts a solid assortment of talking heads.
Morvan is sincere in a selfish way. His sympathetic play includes a disputed account of initial reservations when it was suggested that he and Pilatus would just be the frontmen in a charade, while his convoluted explanation of why they somehow deserved their own Grammy is utterly laughable. . Overall, though, he presents Fab and Rob—so confident in their media presentation at the time—as inexperienced kids who got their heads together and then, once success came, didn’t want to go back into poverty. Who came to blame them?
Vision of their early days comes courtesy of Ingrid Segieth, assistant to German producer Frank Farian and narrator of an origin story in which none of the non-singers expressed any reservations, as well as Charles Shaw, Brad Howell, Linda Rocco and Jodie Rocco, real singers in “Girl You Know It’s True” and more. As for their American twist, we hear about an assistant manager, three menacing executives from Arista Records, and, of course, MTV’s “Downtown” Julie Brown.
If you accept Korem’s perspective that Rob and Fab were, at worst, the smallest fish in this lying pond, the documentary suffers from the absence of people powerful enough to be the real villains. Farian did not give any interviews for the documentary. Arista’s Clive Davis has given no interviews, and while at least one of Arista’s three suits implies that he generally had to know, no one will come out and accuse the titan of cheating. Former Music Academy head Michael Greene, tortuously accused of a pay-for-play deal to allow Milli Vanilli to lip-sync at the Grammys, is absent, as is their late manager Sandy Gallin, who may have effected the payment. Basically, Korem presents Milli Vanilli as puppets, but the most powerful people who may have pulled the strings aren’t here.
It’s frustrating because the smartest of the cultural observers featured in the documentary – critic Hanif Abdurraqib is also an executive producer – wants to make more important points about exploitation in the music industry and Korem obviously would like to force a showdown of some kind. But there are too many unconnected dots. It’s easy to make the right deductions about a scandal in which a group of black artists were marginalized, written off, or sidelined by a group of white executives who allegedly got rich and suffered no visible consequences, but the documentary needs to remain rather suspended. what a land. That leaves Morvan as a victim worthy of empathy, but short of inherently deserving of any triumphant redemption.
Morvan, it turns out, is a wholly useful singer now, and is able to capitalize on nostalgia to carve out something resembling a career. The documentary exploits that same nostalgia to bring complexity to what, 30 years ago, seemed like a simple story. He could have benefited from even greater complexity.