‘Milli Vanilli’ Review: The Saga of the Infamous Pop Duo, Now Seen From the Inside, Becomes a Captivating and Moving Documentary

It’s one of the inside-out realities of our era that scandal, if you give it enough time, turns into myth. So it is with the story of Milli Vanilli, the German-French R&B pop duo of the late ’80s and early ’90s who, having sold close to 50 million records, were revealed to be a fake: a pair of lip-syncing Euro pretty boys who hadn’t sung a note on any of their hits or at any of their concerts.

Once they’d been unmasked, the rise and fall of Milli Vanilli played out on two levels. The first was the spectacular embarrassing bad joke of it all — though it was never just a joke, since Milli Vanilli’s fans felt a tremendous sense of anger and betrayal at having been fooled. (The joke was on them.) The second level recognized a crucial and obvious truth: that the scandal wasn’t only about Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan, with their teenybop dreads and break-lite dance moves, getting up onstage and singing to prerecorded tracks, as if it had all been their idea. No, the brazen fakery of Milli Vanilli echoed, or at least rhymed with, various other kinds of fakery that were embedded in the music industry (the packaging of boy bands, the use of lip-syncing by established stars). This was certainly more extreme, and worthy of being called on the carpet for, but it wasn’t a stand-alone sin.

“Milli Vanilli,” Luke Korem’s captivating and surprisingly moving documentary, adds another, richer layer to the saga. It tells the Milli Vanilli story from the point-of-view of Rob and Fab themselves — especially Fab, who unveiled himself to the filmmaker (Rob Pilatus, following a self-destructive downward spiral of drugs and despair, died in Los Angeles in 1998). We see how they started, why they struck their “deal with the devil” (as you watch this part, it’s not all that impossible to imagine yourself doing the same thing), and who, exactly, the devil was. As a documentary, “Milli Vanilli” brings off something at once strategic, artful, and humane: It presents what happened to Milli Vanilli so that we empathize directly with these two young men who were drawn, like sacrificial virgins, into the pop maelstrom.

Did they make a big mistake? Yes. Were they complicit in a deception that was sleazy and greedy? Yes. But it fell short of being a crime, and by the end of the movie a wide circle of influence has been implicated: the Svengali who pulled the strings, a music industry full of people who saw through the ruse yet rationalized it away, and, in a sense, the public itself. There’s no way that we could have known, yet the myth of Milli Vanilli is that it touches on the pathology of image-making at the core of pop music. And maybe part of the anger is that this was a (trashy) grand illusion that in certain ways implicated us all.

Fab Morvan, now chastened and living in Amsterdam, is our tour guide through the story. He talks about what broken souls he and Rob were when they met — especially Rob, the son of a U.S. soldier and an exotic dancer, adopted at age four into an unhappy family. Rob grew up in Germany (when he spoke English, he sounded like Arnold Schwarzenegger), Fab in France, and the two met in Munich, where according to Fab they were “the only dark-skinned people,” at least on their nightclub circuit. Rob was a break-dancer; Fab danced too and styled himself as an entertainer. They put on shows at clubs, drawing people with their exotic looks — Fab resembled Michael Jackson’s dream image of himself, and Rob was like a Continental Brendan Fraser. Their charisma was sealed with their decision to get matching dreadlocks — Terrence Trent D’Arby may have beaten them to it, but Rob and Fab went a step further by styling themselves like dolls. They had looks to kill and wanted to be stars. It was almost poetic that what they would sound like was treated as an afterthought.

And the devil? That was the German songwriter and producer they hooked up with, Frank Farian, whose claim to fame was having founded the ’70s disco group Boney M. That gave him credibility, and Rob and Fab were so eager for fame that they signed the contract he shoved in their faces after barely reading it. But when they showed up at Farian’s recording studio, he played them the musical track for what would become “Girl You Know It’s True,” with its catchy bell sound, and he then took Rob aside and informed him that they would not be singing on the record. Fab claims they rejected the offer but that Farian, through the contract, had already trapped them in debt, essentially forcing them to comply; Farian’s assistant, Ingrid Segieth (who’s interviewed in the film), claims that didn’t happen. (I believe Fab.)

The bottom line: Rob and Fab agreed to go along with the lip-syncing ruse, which was easy to do at first, since they were performing on TV pop shows where even real bands just mimed their own studio tracks. It didn’t get awkward…until Milli Vanilli got big. Bigger than anyone had planned.

This wasn’t Frank Farian’s first fling with lip-syncing. As we learn, Boney M.’s lead singer, Bobby Farrell, was also a dancer who couldn’t sing; his concerts were all lip-synced. “Milli Vanilli” looks at how the layers of deception unfolded, taking the moral measure of what happened at every turn. The film presents interviews with Brad Howell and Charles Shaw, the singer and rapper who provided the actual vocals for “Girl You Know It’s True” and “Blame It on the Rain.” To say that they felt used would be an understatement. But everyone played their part in the scam, including Rob and Fab, who were trapped once the train of frame had left the station. They became stars, reveling in the glory (and the perks) of it all, but the real point is that even if they’d wanted out, what could they do? Capsize a multi-million-dollar pop juggernaut? Who would have the stones to do that?

“Milli Vanilli” made me realize that I’d remembered the story wrong, and in a telling way. In my memory, the whole thing came crashing down after the infamous performance on July 21, 1989, in Bristol, Conn., when the hard drive of Milli Vanilli’s record track malfunctioned, causing it to jam and skip and play the phrase “Girl, you know it’s…” over and over again. At that moment, Rob and Fab were outed.

But that was not the end. By that point they had made a deal with Clive Davis’s Arista Records, and while Davis, after the Bristol concert, had surely put together what was going on, there was too much money to be made. Milli Vanilli had become huge. Powerful people in the industry, starting with Davis, hoped that the story would simply fade away, like an anecdote about someone’s questionable personal behavior. And to a great extent it did.

Ironically, what did Milli Vanilli in was the ultimate sign of their triumph: a misbegotten decision to put them up for the Grammy Awards, which resulted in their receiving a nomination for best new artist. Seven months after the Bristol concert, on Feb. 21, 1990, they arranged to lip-sync their hit at the Grammys, and they did. They also won, beating out such seminal artists as Soul II Soul and Indigo Girls. But that pissed a lot of people off, and it made them, more than ever, the emperor’s new clothes: More and more people knew what had become obvious (notably Arsenio Hall, who regularly mocked them for it), but almost no one would say it. The house of cards tumbled slowly, starting with an interview given by Charles Shaw, and Frank Fasian was finally pressured into doing damage control. He held a press conference, explaining that the duo hadn’t sung a note on the album, and from that moment Rob and Fab were disgraced ex-pop stars. In the press conference they gave, they were attacked as if guilty of treason.   

How do we measure the transgression of Milli Vanilli? The kindest way would be to point out that in many classic Hollywood musicals, the actors you see (like, say, Natalie Wood in “West Side Story”) are not singing to their own voices. And then there’s the argument, one the documentary flirts with, that says that Milli Vanilli, like the Archies, weren’t a “real band,” yet they presented a sound and image that added up and connected in a way that was irresistible. So who cares if they were lip-syncing?

I care. The deception packaged by Frank Farian was wrong. But where “Milli Vanilli” becomes a poignant experience is in making us realize that Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus, while complicit, were not ultimately to blame. The pop-music system was to blame. A lot of guilt that should have been spread around was, instead, buried or projected onto Fab and Rob. Fab, as we see, pulled himself together (he lives with his partner in Amsterdam, and they have four children), and he even learned how to sing. The film ends with an outdoor concert performance he gives of “Blame It on the Rain,” and he now sings it better than the original record. But Rob didn’t have the same fate. He sunk into drugs, spinning out of the withdrawal from his ultimate drug: the adoration of Milli Vanilli’s fans, which was suddenly taken away. He couldn’t handle the rejection. Many pop sagas have ended in tragedy, but “Milli Vanilli” presents what may the only one that is simultaneously a comedy, a tragedy, and a cautionary tale of jaw-dropping (or maybe mic-dropping) artifice that, had it not actually happened, would have needed to be made up.                                       

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