More than three decades have passed since Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan — together and forever known as Milli Vanilli – took the music world by storm, and fell from grace even faster. Their six-times-platinum debut album in the U.S., “Girl You Know It’s True,” was accompanied by a marketing blitz that produced three No. 1 singles, a trio of American Music Awards and a Best New Artist Grammy before it was revealed that the duo had not sung on the album. An epic level of public humiliation ensured, as the duo were compelled to return their Grammy and nearly everyone who’d worked with them pleaded ignorance, often disingenuously.
Luke Korem – who directed the new “Milli Vanilli” documentary, premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival – was just seven years old during that 18-month-long real-life drama, which tragically culminated with Pilatus’ fatal drug overdose in 1998.
“I’m a child of the ‘90s,” Korem explains about the doc, which premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 10. “The story always fascinated me. I had just seen a YouTube video of Morvan’s talk at the Moth [a non-profit group dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling] and at the end, he sang with a beautiful voice. And I thought, ‘Wait a minute, he was supposed to be a talentless fraud?’
“I felt the story had been reduced in popular culture to a headline, so I started digging through the various layers, especially the human aspect,” he continues. “I wanted to tell a very personal story, not only of Rob and Fab, but everyone involved in Milli Vanilli and how it impacted their lives.”
Indeed, the final product is a pop zeitgeist “Rashomon,” in which several different characters tell their side of the story, from Todd Headlee, the clueless underling who worked under their manager, the late Sandy Gallin, to the cackling Ingrid Segeith, the business partner and paramour of Frank Farian, the German producer behind Milli Vanilli’s music, who’d hired the duo and is accused of masterminding the deception. There are also interviews with a number of Arista executives as well as the album’s actual singers. And everyone has their own reasons to justify their actions.
For Korem, whose previous feature-film experience was directing a Showtime series on sports gambling called “Action,” the only two people who declined to be interviewed were Farian and Clive Davis, the CEO and founder of Milli Vanilli’s U.S. label Arista Records, who has continued to maintain that he didn’t know the two heavily accented front men were not singing on those records. But in Korem’s interviews with former Arista executives Richard Sweret, Mitchell Cohen and Ken Levy, as well as an anonymous recorded former exec, all basically admit that the label — and by extension the famously micromanaging Davis himself — knew about the subterfuge very early on and declined to knock the gravy train off the rails. (Davis appears in this doc from a 2017 interview; a rep for Davis did not immediately respond to Variety‘s request for comment.)
“I wanted to offer everyone a chance to tell their story, what they remember and how they feel about it now,” Korem says. “A great many people did things that were wrong. Some people in the film admit what they did was wrong — even Fab admitted he and Rob embraced the lie.”
The behind-the-scenes story began to emerge in 1997 with an episode of VH1’s “Behind the Music” series that remained its highest-rated for years. The show premiered shortly before Rob’s death, then was re-edited to include it.
“When we did ‘Behind the Music,’ I wasn’t as strong as I am today,” Morvan tells Variety. “I can look at it with some distance now. There’s no pain attached to it anymore. There was a part of me that felt guilty and insecure. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but people didn’t know the whole story. This documentary overturns many misconceptions, and it’s just the start.”
The Milli Vanilli story has fascinated filmmakers from producer Kathleen Kennedy (who once owned the film rights with husband Frank Marshall) to Brett Ratner, whose own long-in-gestation biopic, announced last year, was derailed by a series of sexual-misconduct allegations against him. And there’s more to come: Korem is planning a multi-episode biopic on Milli Vanilli with the doc’s executive producer Kim Marlowe.
The doc’s most entertaining moments come from of Todd Headlee, Gallin-Morey’s hapless associate, who unknowingly submitted Milli Vanilli for a Grammy with a personally typed letter to Recording Academy head Mike Greene, which allegedly sent Davis into an apoplectic fury, knowing the group would be unmasked. Headlee insists he had no idea the two weren’t singing on their records. (Reps for the Recording Academy did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)
“Todd Headlee is like the movie’s Forrest Gump,” laughs Korem. “He’s always there; he just didn’t realize what he was doing. I believe it was his first job in the industry, and also his last. He really wrote that letter. You couldn’t make this stuff up.”
“Everybody spoke the truth as they saw it,” insists Morvan. “And that truth led us to the person who premeditated everything: Frank Farian. But what I’ve learned from life is forgiveness. Live and let live. If you can’t do that, it’s like a house with termites, you’re going to be eaten from within, and never be able to experience true happiness. I’ve accepted myself. I’m satisfied with the person up on that screen.”
The other blockbuster allegation involves the Recording Academy’s Mike Greene taking a bribe (from Farian by way of Sandy Gallin) to look the other way when the group was allowed to lip-sync on the Grammy telecast — one of the organization’s chief taboos — although he later demanded that the duo return their awards. Segeith describes the transaction simply, rubbing her fingers together in the traditional “it’s all about the money” gesture.
“It was very difficult to look ourselves in the mirror back then, with all the jokes and ridicule,” explains Morvan. “To see this story from our perspective was important because we were portrayed as the villains for so long. This fills in some of the pieces of the puzzle. Nobody wanted to spill the beans and stop the gravy train. But that’s the business of pop music. Money is more important than human beings.”
For music industry veterans, that comes as no surprise, but that it played out in such Shakespearean fashion continues to make the Milli Vanilli tale a compelling narrative that now turns from the tragic to the redemptive.
“I’ve always been interested in how the sausage was made when it comes to pop music,” says Korem. “I wanted to make sure we showed the machinery behind how these stars are manufactured.”
Indeed, that the media was outraged by this show of “inauthenticity” in a business known for its smoke and mirrors remains as curious now as it was then. Farian had already done the same trick once with Europop smash Boney M., whose front man Bobby Farrell was, like Rob and Fab, more dancer than singer, but that didn’t stop them from having a string of vintage disco hits like “Rasputin,” “Daddy Cool” and a cover of “Rivers of Babylon,” all of them sung by Farian himself.
Perhaps the most damning comment about Farian comes from Charles Shaw, one of the actual singers on Milli Vanilli’s album, who calls him “just another white man looking to exploit Black musicians.”
Yet it all comes back to another familiar pop-music paradigm: Those songs never would have achieved the sales they did without the charismatic duo promoting them.
“Downtown” Julie Brown, the former VJ who served as the MC at Milli Vanilli’s ill-fated “Club MTV” 1989 tour — where a playback malfunction offered the first crack in the conspiracy — makes the strongest case for the duo. “The show would play to packed arenas. Rob and Fab were two sexy performers selling hits. And they did a really bloody good job at it. The audience loved them. It was very powerful.”
In the film, Morvan admits that a small part of him believes he and Rob did earn that Grammy — or at the very least, they shouldn’t be erased from history, as the Recording Academy has done, leaving blank the “Best New Artist” category for 1990.
“I understand the rules are strict for that sort of thing,” says Morvan about not singing on the records. “But our fans know the amount of work we put into those performances and videos,” adding with presumably unintended humor, “It’s almost as if you need to create a whole new Grammy category to cover what we did.”
Indeed, “Milli Vanilli” largely tells the story from the now 57-year-old Morvan’s perspective.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Fab,” says Korem. “I think this could be his second coming. We sat down for three days and more than 20 hours of interviews. There was a great deal of emotional outpouring. It was like a therapy session. What I love about Fab is he’s such a calming presence. You can tell he has wrestled with this in the past, dealt with it and moved forward. This was the ultimate healing for him; he can finally put his stamp on what happened.”
Sadly, the same is not true of Pilatus. “The drugs had sunk their teeth into the fiber of his soul,” Morvan says. “The demon wouldn’t let him go. The sad part was he was [scheduled] to fly to India the day after he died, but he obviously wanted one last hurrah.”
The doc notes that Morvan used to sing an acoustic version of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” during his live performances. “When I write now, it comes from having lived through both pain and love,” he says. “I look at the world differently now. When you have children, you must divide yourself and give unconditional love, which has made me a better artist. If this is my redemption song, it’s just the first of many.”
“Milli Vanilli” is set for streaming worldwide this fall on Paramount+ after its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on Friday. It is produced by MTV Entertainment Studios and MRC.