The new Milli Vanilli documentary re-tells their very well known story and scandal (to anyone who lived through it): The duo of Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan had a great look, fantastic dance moves, and a series of hit singles like “Girl, You Know It’s True,” and “Blame it on the Rain.” And for a very brief period, they were the biggest thing in music, although no, their names were not “Milli” and “Vanilli.”
Then, just over a year later, news broke that the two hadn’t actually sung on their album and that the real music was performed by session musicians while Pilatus and Morvan lip-synched all public performances. Their Best New Artist Grammy Award was rescinded — something that had never happened before and hasn’t since — and the two men became essentially permanent pariahs in the music industry.
Attempts by both “Rob and Fab” and the session musicians to make subsequent music went nowhere, and Pilatus died in 1998 of an alcohol and prescription drug overdose.
The story has been told before, including in the very first episode of VH1’s Behind the Music back in 1997. But the new documentary benefits from some distance, while also placing it firmly in the documentary genre of “Gee, we sure freaked out badly about that thing in the ‘90s, didn’t we?”
We hear from Morvan, as well as a couple of the real performers, although Frank Farian, the record impresario, mastermind of the scheme, and clear villain of the piece, did not participate.
The film, though, is clear that Farian never suffered the same pariah status as Rob or Fab did. Clive Davis, the legendary label honcho, got through everything pretty much unscathed, although interviewees in the film differ on exactly how much he knew.
The documentary does establish that, lip-synching or not, Milli Vanilli probably didn’t deserve that Grammy Award, as their competitors, the likes of the Indigo Girls, De La Soul, and Neneh Cherry, made music that continues to resonate more than 30 years later.
Eventually, the film turns into a version of Framing Britney Spears, in which a news story from decades ago is re-contextualized as if to say that “these people clearly did something wrong, back then, but everyone was about 100 times meaner to them than was probably justified.” The role of mean talk show host making more-vicious-than-you-remember jokes at the time, usually played in these things by Jay Leno, is Arsenio Hall this time.
In this case, Morvan and Pilatus were very young, unsophisticated about the music business, and barely spoke English. We see Pilatus and Morvan’s post-scandal press conference, in which reporters harangued them with self-righteous bile, the kind that might have been more appropriate for a press conference with a pair of serial killers.
Ludicrously, people crushed and burned their records, and a couple of people even filed class action lawsuits, that I assume (I hope) were laughed out of court.
The Milli Vanilli hoax was certainly embarrassing at the time, and it wasn’t a good thing to do, and the people involved with it paid a terrible price. But the response, it’s safe to claim now, as shown by this very good documentary, was laughably disproportionate.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.