Credit: Michael Putland
by Christopher Bourne Featured Film

Milli Vanilli — Luke Korem [Tribeca ’23 Review]

June 16, 2023

The oft-told story of the French-German dance-pop duo known as Milli Vanilli, comprising Fabrice Morvan and Rob Pilatus, is a scandalous tale of exposed fraud that was also a pop-culture punchline for many years, before it ended in tragedy. In Luke Korem’s documentary Milli Vanilli, this story is given more perspective and nuance, told largely through the recollections of surviving member Morvan. When it was revealed in 1990 that Milli Vanilli’s massive hit album Girl, You Know It’s True — which went six-times platinum and garnered three #1 singles in the U.S. — did not feature the vocals of the two men presented as the singers, Morvan and Pilatus shouldered the lion’s share of the blame, ridicule, and outrage for the exposed deception. This film makes the compelling case that they, while certainly complicit, were ultimately not to blame, and suffered the most from the scheme, while the big-wigs who masterminded and greatly profited (including Arista Records’ head honcho Clive Davis) escaped with their reputations largely unscathed.

Korem takes care to explore Rob and Fab’s origins. Both emerged from similar backgrounds of poverty and broken homes to meet in Munich, where they became popular dancers and entertainers on the nightclub circuit. This brought them to the attention of German producer and songwriter Frank Farian, who recognized that the duo’s stunning good looks could be very marketable in a pop music context, and quickly signed them to a contract. Desperate to be stars, Rob and Fab eagerly put their names to the agreement without reading it as closely as they should have.

Farian was the producer behind the popular ‘70s disco act Boney M., fronted by Bobby Farrell, a dancer who didn’t actually sing, but lip-synched vocals provided by Farian himself. Farian figured he could pull off a similar trick with Rob and Fab, so when he presented them with the track that would eventually become the worldwide smash hit “Girl, You Know It’s True,” he informed them that they would not be singing on the track. Morvan says in the film that they tried to back out of the deal, but were forced to comply because of the debt they had incurred to Farian due to the contract they’d signed. However, Farian’s assistant and paramour, Ingrid Segieth, who’s also interviewed in the film, refutes this, claiming they didn’t object to these terms. Although this issue is left as a he-said-she-said account, one comes away more inclined to believe Morvan’s version of these events.

The trifecta that was the “Girl, You Know It’s True” single, the quickly recorded follow-up album, and Milli Vanilli themselves, quickly blew up in popularity, especially in the U.S., and did so well beyond the expectations of everyone involved. In retrospect, it’s clear that the massive deception at the heart of the Milli Vanilli phenomenon was impossible to sustain for very long. The first crack in the scheme occurred on July 21, 1989, during the Bristol, CT stop on the Club MTV tour, when the backing track Milli Vanilli were using on stage malfunctioned and began skipping. Incredibly, this embarrassing episode was able to be contained and did little to derail the Milli Vanilli juggernaut. What finally did them in was what should have been their ultimate triumph: winning the Best New Artist award at the 1990 Grammys. Shortly after this win, Charles Shaw, the rapper who was one of the real voices on the album (and who’s interviewed in the film), gave an interview exposing Milli Vanilli’s deception. At the same time, Rob and Fab were demanding that Farian let them sing on future recordings, threatening to go public themselves. Farian responded to all this by holding a press conference in which he blew up the scheme that he himself spearheaded. The result was that Rob and Fab were left holding the bag, their reputations and careers destroyed, while Farian emerged relatively unharmed and able to continue in the music business. 

Milli Vanilli, in the end, functions as a potent cautionary tale about the pitfalls of pop stardom, and of the exploitation of the naïve and vulnerable that often exists as the flipside to glittering fame. More disturbingly, it’s also a story of Black artists used up and discarded by white producers and music executives. And this story’s conclusion is simultaneously tragic and redemptive. Rob Pilatus, in his post-Milli Vanilli years, spiraled into addiction and despair, culminating in his drug overdose in 1998. Fabrice Morvan, in contrast, managed to survive, marry, and raise a family in Amsterdam, and now tours the nostalgia circuit, performing Milli Vanilli songs — in his own voice — to appreciative crowds. It’s ultimately the arc of his experience that forms the strongest aspects of this fascinating and well-told documentary.


Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 24

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