“We’ve been the bad guys 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 favor even faster. Their six-times platinum US debut album, “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 is revealed. that the duo did not sing on the album. An epic level of public humiliation assured, as the duo were forced to return their Grammys and almost everyone who had worked with them pleaded ignorance, often dishonestly.

Luke Korem – who directed the new documentary ‘Milli Vanilli,’ premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival – was just seven years old during this 18-month real-life drama, which tragically culminated in Pilatus’ fatal overdose. in 1998.

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“I’m a kid of the 90s,” Korem says of the documentary, which will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 10. “History has 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, was he supposed to be a talentless impostor?’

“I felt the story had been reduced in popular culture to a title, 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 in Milli Vanilli and the impact it has had on their lives.”

Indeed, the end product is a “Rashomon” pop zeitgeist, in which several different characters tell their side of the story, from Todd Headlee, the clueless underling who worked under their late manager, Sandy Gallin, to the cackling Ingrid Segeith, the business and love partner of Frank Farian, the German producer behind the music for Milli Vanilli, who had hired the duo and is accused of orchestrating the deception. There are also interviews with a number of Arista executives as well as the actual vocalists on the album. And everyone has their own reasons for their actions.

For Korem, whose previous feature film experience was directing a Showtime sports betting series called “Action,” the only two people who declined to be interviewed were Farian and Clive Davis, the CEO and founder from Milli Vanilli’s US label, Arista Records, who continued to claim that he was unaware that the two heavily accented singers 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 unnamed former recorded executive, all basically admit that the label – and by extension famed micromanager Davis himself – knew about the subterfuge early on and refused to derail the gravy train. (Davis appears in this document from a 2017 interview; a representative for Davis did not immediately respond to Varietyrequest for comment.)

“I wanted to give everyone a chance to tell their story, what they remember and what they think about it now,” says Korem. “A lot of people did things that weren’t right. Some people in the movie 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 top-rated for years. The show premiered shortly before Rob’s death, then was re-edited to include him.

“When we did ‘Behind the Music,’ I wasn’t as strong as I am today,” Morvan told Variety. “I can watch it from a distance now. There is no more pain attached to it. 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 received ideas, and this is only the beginning.

Milli Vanilli’s story has fascinated filmmakers, from producer Kathleen Kennedy (who once owned the film rights with husband Frank Marshall) to Brett Ratner, whose own long-gestating biopic, announced last year, was derailed by a series of sexual misconduct allegations. against him. And there’s more to come: A German-made biopic about the band overseen by Farian, who spawned a series of similar studio-made acts like Boney-M and Le Bouche, is also in production and slated for release later. next year ; 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, Gallin-Morey’s ill-fated associate, who unknowingly submitted Milli Vanilli for a Grammy with a personally typed letter to Recording Academy head Mike Greene, who allegedly sent Davis into an apoplectic fury, knowing the group would get him exposed. Headlee insists he had no idea the two weren’t singing on their records. (Representatives for the Recording Academy did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)

“Todd Headlee is like the Forrest Gump of 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 really wrote that letter. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

“Everyone told the truth as they saw it,” insists Morvan. “And that truth led us to the person who planned it all: Frank Farian. But what I have 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 up inside and you’ll never be able to know true happiness. I accepted myself. I am satisfied with the person on this screen.

The other hit allegation involves The Recording Academy’s Mike Greene accepting a bribe (from Farian through Sandy Gallin) to look the other way when the band were allowed to lip-sync during the Grammy TV show – one of the main taboos of the organization – although he later demanded that the duo return their awards. Segeith describes the transaction simply, rubbing his fingers in the traditional “it’s all about the money” gesture.

“It was very hard to look in the mirror back then, with all the jokes and teasing,” Morvan says. “Seeing this story from our perspective was important because we’ve been portrayed as the bad guys for so long. It fills in some of the pieces of the puzzle. Nobody wanted to spill the beans and stop the gravy train. But that’s the pop music business Money is more important than human beings.

For music industry veterans, this comes as no surprise, but the fact that it unfolded in such a Shakespearian fashion continues to make Milli Vanilli’s story a compelling tale that now transitions from tragic to the redeemer.

“I’ve always been interested in how sausage is made when it comes to pop music,” says Korem. “I wanted to make sure we showed the machinery behind making these stars.”

Indeed, that the media was outraged by this display of “inauthenticity” at a company known for its smoke and mirrors remains as curious today as it was then. Farian had done the same trick once before with Europop hit Boney M., whose frontman Bobby Farrell was, like Rob and Fab, more of a dancer than a 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 sung by Farian himself.

Perhaps the most damning commentary on Farian comes from Charles Shaw, one of the real vocalists on Milli Vanilli’s album, who calls him “just another white guy looking to exploit black musicians”.

Yet it all boils down to another familiar pop music paradigm: these songs would never have achieved the sales they did without the charismatic duo that promoted them.

“Downtown” Julie Brown, the former VJ who served as MC on MTV’s ill-fated 1990-sponsored Milli Vanilli tour — where a playback malfunction offered the first crack in the plot — makes the strongest case in favor of the duo. “The show would be played in crowded arenas. Rob and Fab were two hot artists who sold hits. And they did a very good job. The public loved them. It was very powerful. »

In the film, Morvan admits that a small part of him thinks he and Rob won that Grammy – or at the very least, they shouldn’t be erased from history, as the Recording Academy did, leaving in white the “Best New Artist”. category for 1990.

“I understand the rules are strict for this stuff,” Morvan says of not singing on records. “But our fans know the amount of work we put into these performances and videos,” adding with perhaps unintentional humor, “It’s almost like you have to create a whole new Grammy category to cover what we’ve done. “

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

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

Unfortunately, the same is not true for Pilatus. “The drugs had sunk their teeth into the fiber of his soul,” Morvan says. “The demon didn’t let him go. The saddest thing was that he was [scheduled] to fly to India the day after his death, but he obviously wanted a 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 experienced both pain and love,” he says. “I look at the world differently now. When you have kids, you have to split up and give unconditional love, which made me a better artist. If this is my redemption song, it’s only the first in a long line.

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

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