September 25, 2023

‘We were the villains for so long’

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 US, “Girl You Know It’s True”, was accompanied by a marketing blitz that spawned three No. 1 singles, a trio of American Music Awards and a Best New Artist Grammy before it was revealed that the duo would not had sung on the album. An epic level of public humiliation took care of it, as the duo were forced to return their Grammys and nearly everyone who had worked with them pleaded ignorance, often disingenuously.

Luke Korem — who directed the new documentary “Milli Vanilli,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival — was just seven years old during that 18-month real-life drama that tragically culminated in Pilate’s fatal drug overdose in 1998.

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“I’m a child of the ’90s,” Korem explains of the documentary, which premieres June 10 at the Tribeca Film Festival. “The story has always fascinated me. I had just seen a YouTube video of Morvan’s speech 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’d be a talentless con artist?’

“I felt like the story had been reduced to a headline in popular culture, so I started digging through the different layers, especially the human aspect,” he continues. “I wanted to tell a very personal story, not just of Rob and Fab, but of everyone involved with Milli Vanilli and how it affected their lives.”

Indeed, the final product is a pop zeitgeist “Rashomon”, in which various characters tell their side of the story, from Todd Headlee, the unwitting subordinate who worked under their manager, the late Sandy Gallin, to the cackling Ingrid Segeith, the business partner and lover of Frank Farian, the German producer behind Milli Vanilli’s music, who hired the duo and is accused of masterminding the deception. There are also interviews with some of Arista’s 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 included directing a Showtime series about 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 US label Arista Records, he continued to insist that he did not know that the two heavily accented frontmen did not sing on those records. But in Korem’s interviews with former Arista executives Richard Sweret, Mitchell Cohen, and Ken Levy, as well as an anonymously taped ex-exec, they all admit that the label—and, by extension, famed micromanaging Davis himself—got up to speed very early on. of the subterfuge and refused to knock the just train off the rails. (Davis appears in this document from a 2017 interview; a Davis representative did not immediately respond Variety‘s request for comment.)

“I wanted to give everyone a chance to tell their story, what they remember and how they feel about it now,” says Korem. “Lots of people did things that were wrong. Some of the people in the film admit that what they did was wrong – even Fab admitted that 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, which remained the top-rated for years. The show premiered shortly before Rob’s death and was then re-edited to include it.

“When we did ‘Behind the Music,’ I wasn’t as strong as I am now,” Morvan tells Variety. “I can now look at it with some distance. There is no pain 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 puts aside many misconceptions, and it’s just the beginning.”

The Milli Vanilli story has captivated filmmakers, from producer Kathleen Kennedy (who once co-owned the film rights with husband Frank Marshall) to Brett Ratner, whose own biopic, announced last year and long into pregnancy, was derailed by a series of allegations of sexual misconduct. 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 Todd Headlee, the hapless Gallin-Morey associate, who unknowingly entered Milli Vanilli for a Grammy with a personally typed letter to Mike Greene, head of the Recording Academy, which Davis allegedly into an apoplectic rage, knowing the group would. be exposed. Headlee insists he had no idea the two weren’t singing on their records. (Recording Academy representatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)

“Todd Headlee is like Forrest Gump from the movie,” laughs Korem. “He is 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 actually wrote that letter. You couldn’t make this up.

“Everyone spoke the truth as they saw it,” Morvan emphasises. “And that truth led us to the person who premeditated everything: Frank Farian. But what I have learned from life is forgiveness. Live and let live. If you can’t, it’s like a house with termites, you’ll be eaten from the inside and never be able to experience true happiness. I have accepted myself. I am happy with the person on that screen.”

The other blockbuster allegation holds that Mike Greene of the Recording Academy took a bribe (from Farian via Sandy Gallin) to look the other way when the group was allowed to lip sync on the Grammy telecast – one of the organization’s main taboos – though 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 really hard to look ourselves in the mirror then, with all the jokes and ridicule,” explains Morvan. “It was important to see this story from our perspective because we were portrayed as the villains for so long. This fills in some pieces of the puzzle. No one wanted to spill the beans and stop the just train. But that’s the business of pop music. Money is more important than people.”

This comes as no surprise to music industry veterans, but playing out in such a Shakespearean fashion still makes the Milli Vanilli story a riveting tale that now morphs from tragic to 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 machines behind how these stars are manufactured.”

Indeed, that the media was outraged by this show of “inauthenticity” in a company known for smoke and mirrors remains as curious now as it was then. Farian had already pulled the same trick on Europop cracker Boney M., whose frontman Bobby Farrell, like Rob and Fab, was more dancer than singer, but that didn’t stop them from releasing a series of vintage disco hits like “Rasputin ”, “Daddy Cool” and a cover of “Rivers of Babylon”, all sung by Farian himself.

Perhaps the most scathing comment about Farian comes from Charles Shaw, one of the actual singers on Milli Vanilli’s album, who calls him “just another white guy who wants to exploit black musicians.”

Yet it all comes back to another
well-known pop music paradigm: Those songs would never have achieved the sales they did without the charismatic duo promoting them.

“Downtown” Julie Brown, the former VJ who served as MC on Milli Vanilli’s ill-fated 1989 “Club MTV” tour – where a playback glitch yielded the first breakthrough in the conspiracy – is the duo’s strongest argument. “The show played to packed arenas. Rob and Fab were two sexy artists who sold hits. And they did a really damn good job. The audience loved them. It was very powerful.’

In the film, Morvan admits that a small part of him believes that he and Rob deserved that Grammy – or at the very least that they shouldn’t be erased from history, as the Recording Academy has done, and the “Best New Artist” blank late. category ” for 1990.

“I understand the rules are strict about that sort of thing,” Morvan says of not singing on the records. “But our fans know how much work we put into those performances and videos,” adding with presumably unintentional humor, “It’s almost like you have to create a whole new Grammy category to cover what we’ve done.”

Indeed, “Milli Vanilli” tells the story largely from the perspective of the now 57-year-old Morvan.

“I have a lot of respect for Fab,” says Korem. “I think this could be his second coming. We sat down for three days and over 20 hours of interviews. There was a lot of emotional outburst. It was like a therapy session. What I love about Fab is that he is such a calming presence. You can see that he has struggled with this in the past, coped with it and moved forward. This was the ultimate cure for him; he can finally put his stamp on what happened.

Unfortunately, the same does not apply to Pilate. “The drugs had sunk their teeth into the fibers of his soul,” says Morvan. “The demon wouldn’t let him go. The sad thing was that he was [scheduled] to fly to India the day after his death, but he clearly wanted one last hurray.

The doc notes that Morvan sang an acoustic version of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” during his live performances. “If I write now, it’s because I’ve been through both pain and love,” he says. “I look at the world differently now. When you have kids, you have to divide yourself and give unconditional love, which made me a better artist. If this is my redemption song, it’s just the first of many.

“Milli Vanilli” will be streaming worldwide on Paramount+ this fall after premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival on Friday. It is produced by MTV Entertainment Studios and MRC.

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