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The self-contained punchline that is Milli Vanilli gets a sympathetic exploration in the appropriately titled documentary “Milli Vanilli.”
Director Luke Korem’s film, streaming Tuesday on Paramount+, seeks to understand and humanize the ‘80s pop duo, who skyrocketed to superstardom and then crashed spectacularly when it was revealed that they were lip-synching the whole time. Korem doesn’t uncover too much that’s new, but more than three decades later, he gives key players the opportunity to share their memories and perspectives. The passage of time provides frank reassessments—some tragic, some humorous.
It’s amusing that one of the first images we see before the movie even begins is the MTV Entertainment Studios logo, given that the cable channel was a major force in making Milli Vanilli wildly popular in the United States. Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan were tailor-made for music videos, with their flowing locks, chiseled bods, and smoldering stares. (You can thank them for making bicycle shorts popular for more than just bicycling.) The songs were insanely catchy: Just try to get “Girl You Know It’s True” out of your head after watching this movie. It can’t be done.
But as Korem details in filling in their backstories, the French Fab and German Rob were dancers and models when they met and became friends in Munich—not singers. They also came from broken and abusive homes and craved the adoration that performing could provide. German record producer Frank Farian—one of the few people who refused to be interviewed for the film—was canny enough to recognize all that hunger and ambition, and he packaged them for mass exploitation. The racial component of this scheme, in which he used two young Black men for his own benefit and then cast them aside, is unmistakable and makes him seem particularly ghoulish.
But as Fab acknowledges in a series of candid interviews that are both entertaining and heartbreaking, he and Rob didn’t read the fine print on their contract all that closely. They had no idea they would merely provide the faces of the act, not the voices. You could argue that they should have known better and been more careful and that their ignominious fate was entirely their fault. Gotta blame it on something, as Milli Vanilli “sang” in “Blame It on the Rain,” and Fab’s explanation is that they were young, poor, and seduced by fame. That seems fair.
The actual singers and rappers whose voices you hear on all those huge late-‘80s hits appear here to share their wild tales, and some remain understandably bitter. While Farian himself doesn’t speak on camera, we hear a great deal from his right-hand woman, Ingrid Segieth, who facilitated the ruse every step of the way and became romantically involved with Rob. Segieth breaks down at the memory of discovering Rob dead in a German hotel room in 1998 at age 33 after years of heavy drug abuse, depression, and legal troubles, but Korem never really presses her on her crucial role in creating and perpetuating the hoax that would become his downfall. Similarly, we see veteran record executives claim that the legendary Clive Davis knew Milli Vanilli was a sham while they were artists at Artista Records—which Davis has always denied—but the film ultimately leaves that notion dangling.
Korem is more successful at vividly revisiting a moment in pop culture history, from the shrieking crowds to the screaming magazine covers and, eventually, the derisive one-liners from the late-night talk show hosts. He includes a clip of the major hiccup that occurred during a stop on the Club MTV Tour when the track skipped while the duo was performing in Bristol, Connecticut, causing Rob to flee backstage in panic. (At age 16, I actually saw Milli Vanilli in “concert” as part of this tour, alongside Paula Abdul and Information Society, in August 1989 at The Forum in Los Angeles. “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” made me sob as I prepared to leave my boyfriend, Glen McIntyre, behind and head off to college. It was a time!)
The retelling of events that would become Milli Vanilli’s ultimate undoing—an eager and unsuspecting assistant manager thinking it would be a good idea to submit them for Grammy consideration—emerges as a thrilling and stomach-turning adventure. Cutaways to the likes of Ozzy Osbourne rolling their eyes in the Grammy Awards audience at the sight of Rob and Fob obviously lip-synching are hilarious and sad at once. You end up feeling sorry for these guys who were so in over their heads—even when meteoric fame went to their heads, and particularly when they won a Best New Artist prize they didn’t even begin to deserve and soon had to return.
Despite the humiliation and suffering on display, “Milli Vanilli” ends on an unexpected note of uplift, one that Fabrice Morvan actually hits as a legitimate singer these days.
On Paramount+ now.