How does a group with three number-one hits and a 1990s Grammy for Best New Artist become the center of ridicule and parody? People may remember the In Living Color skit or the VH1 Behind The Music episode that sadly contains the last full in-depth interview from the late Rob Pilatus. But there’s a lot more to the story behind Milli Vanilli than just the eventual fall from grace. At the heart of Luke Korem’s new documentary, two young men grew a friendship with the shared goal of achieving something great in the creative realm with pure intent. With those ambitions, Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan then meet acclaimed music producer Frank Farian, and it seems like they will have a chance at potential superstardom.
In the series of interviews Morvan does for the documentary, he describes first hearing the music for “Girl You Know It’s True” and then the frustration and anger he and Pilatus later show when they learn from Farian that they wouldn’t be singing on it. From there, it was a long deception play where the actual singers of the song, comprised of Charles Shaw, Brad Howell, Linda Rocco, and Jodie Rocco, were put into the background while Rob and Fab took center stage.
To be clear, the backlash upon the revelations was heavy-handed from fans who felt betrayed that the voices from “Blame It On the Rain” weren’t coming from the men they saw in videos and performances. (There were 27 lawsuits filed after the 1990 Grammys). It’s incredible to note that even after the 1990 MTV tour stop where their vocal track got stuck, the wheels on this pop machine didn’t fall off. Things began to crumble rapidly after the Grammy Award win (accidental submission to the category started it all). Who is most at fault here? Korem tries to toe the line between getting as many people on record as possible and showing a more sympathetic side to Rob and Fab.
This is difficult to do because few people in the higher stages of this scandal were either unavailable or didn’t want to partake in the documentary (like Clive Davis and Farian himself). What’s left is an assortment of Arista executives who, at the time, vary from saying they didn’t know lip-syncing was occurring due to Farian’s restrictive nature over recording to one saying they knew what was happening. With how the story is told, there was no doubt that this musical experiment had a shelf life the longer it went on – but everybody had an incentive to keep things moving.
For Rob and Fab, their meeting in Munich existed in mutual circles. Dancing and performing birthed this dream that soon became a nightmare. Throughout Rob’s life, he had to battle many demons, from a challenging upbringing where he was adopted at the age of four to a family he didn’t find love until he obtained fame. It was a pacifier for the emptiness he and Fab felt; drugs and excess soon filled that void. At one point, Fab likened the world to feeling numb, and when the thing you’ve been seeking turns out to be a construct not even of your own doing, you can understand.
Yes, the duo was complicit in the pop act of smoke and mirrors, and Fab’s explanation of why they deserved the Grammy might perplex you. But they are far from the main culprits at play. Within the music industry now, the line between artist and fan has thinned considerably – especially with the accessibility of social media. Fans (and stans) take on whole personas where they feel they know these entertainers on a first-name basis. It’s a devotional and can also be scary. Looking back at the infamous press conference where Rob and Fab spoke to the media, it feels adversarial that the media explicitly blamed them for what happened. Meanwhile, Farian would rebrand some actual singers into The Real Milli Vanilli – a testament to pop music's “here today, gone tomorrow” culture.
Everybody benefited from this, but there is evidence that only two people involved bore the brunt of the backlash. If there is a “happy ending” in all of this, it comes from Morvan – now married in Amsterdam with four children. He can use his voice to sing the songs he wasn’t allowed. Unfortunately, Pilatus never recovered, slipping increasingly into the disease of addiction. What’s even sadder is that at the time of his death, Pilatus was only 33. He never got to have a second act like many of the executives and producers who helped exploit him.
Korem also hints at a greater injustice – Black creatives were left hung out to dry by white executives. After all, it was Farian’s idea to pull the curtain back, leaving Rob and Fab to fend for themselves. If you told somebody the story of Milli Vanilli, who had no idea the story was real, they would probably think it was a parody. How long could a live band go not knowing this secret and not ever seeing Rob and Fab perform during soundcheck? However, once you’re in the moment and the getting is good, perhaps the euphoria of it all takes you in. But when the record stopped, everybody left the party, and two people had the check in hand.