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Exploitation, ridicule and racism: Documentary insists on Milli Vanilli’s innocence

A new documentary once again delves into the scandal of Milli Vanilli’s lip-syncing that shook the music industry in 1990, but this time, from an empathetic viewpoint

Milli Vanilli
Milli Vanilli, during a performance on November 17, 1989.Franz-Peter Tschauner (Getty Ima

When Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan — the German-French pop duo known as Milli Vanilli — signed a record deal at music producer Frank Farian’s Frankfurt recording studio in January 1988, they effectively sealed their fate and triggered a series of events that would yield them enormous success. Unfortunately, it would come at a devastating price.

After rising to fame with their debut album All or Nothing, which earned six platinum records, Milli Vanilli picked up a Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1990. At the end of that same year, it was revealed that the pair had been lip-syncing during their live performances and were not singing on their albums, which culminated in a huge fallout and triggered 27 lawsuits alleging fraud.

Milli Vanilli turned into the laughingstock of the decade and descended into oblivion. Rob Pilatus passed away in Munich in 1998 as a result of an overdose of drugs and alcohol.

More than 30 years later, public opinion seems to be changing. A new documentary entitled Milli Vanilli, directed by Luke Korem, premiered recently at the Tribeca Film Festival. The documentary recounts their story from the perspective of Morvan, the surviving member, who has become a proficient vocalist and the star of a remarkable solo career.

“There were a lot of sensational headlines, but very little in-depth reporting on what happened,” says director Luke Korem. “I started researching them and stumbled upon Frank Farian. I realized that he had done this before with the band Boney M. At that moment, I knew there was a lot more to the story than what we know.”

Besides Morvan, the documentary also features interviews with the album’s original vocalists: Brad Howell, Charles Shaw, Linda and Jodie Rocco. Producer Timbaland also appears.

According to Korem, it took him eight months to persuade Morvan to participate in the documentary. “It’s been addressed, as you can imagine, several times over the years,” says Korem. “He realized that I didn’t just want to tell Fab’s story and I didn’t just want to tell Frank Farian’s story; I wanted to tell everyone’s story. And that was what he also wanted.”

The film openly singles out Farian and discusses the exploitation of Black artists in the music industry in the 1980s. “Artists are exploited, regardless of the color of their skin, and this is still the case even today,” says Korem. “However, the hatred and outrage that Rob and Fab encountered was largely because they were Black, because it was a mostly white audience that bought into Milli Vanilli. Then, when they realized that these two guys weren’t singing, there was like an extra layer of racism.”

Stories about professional scammers continue to enthrall audiences. This is why the documentary comes shortly after the successful Netflix series about New York con artist Anna Delvey and the documentary about Fyre Fest, the catastrophic festival that took place on an island full of influencers and celebrities, organized by Billy McFarland. However, the difference is that the Milli Vanilli hoax reveals that the duo was also scammed. The documentary ends with Morvan on stage at a music festival, singing in his own wonderful voice in front of a packed crowd. It’s a beautiful and moving story of redemption of an artist who eventually stopped being branded as a joke so he could just concentrate on being himself.

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