This German-French pop duo, formed just a year prior by German producer Frank Farian, had already stormed through the European music charts with their debut single, “Girl You Know It’s True.” The track made its way to US airwaves in March, creating an astronomical impact. Their first album sold over 8 million copies and gave birth to three No. 1 singles, firmly securing its place in the top 10 throughout the year. Young fans, predominantly women, passionately sang along to Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan’s synchronized choreography and undeniable charisma. Their distinct style included long braided hair extensions that swayed as they danced, captivating gazes, chiseled abs, shoulder pads, and spandex shorts, all set against a backdrop of 1980s dance moves.
However, their meteoric rise was eclipsed and tarnished by a scandal that would consign Milli Vanilli to the annals of pop history. By the time they received the Grammy award for Best New Artist in February 1990, suspicions were already circulating within the music industry. In November of the same year, Frank Farian shocked the world during a press conference, revealing that Pilatus and Morvan had never sung on any of their recordings, having instead lip-synced their performances. This revelation led to a rapid downfall for the duo: radio stations stopped playing their songs, fans destroyed their records, and the Grammys revoked their award, marking the first and only time such an action has been taken in the history of the awards. In an attempt to salvage their careers, Pilatus and Morvan rebranded as “Rob and Fab,” using their own vocals, but their new albums only sold a fraction of what they had previously achieved. Milli Vanilli became a symbol of pride, arrogance, and deception.
This is where the widely known narrative of Milli Vanilli ends, emphasizing Rob and Fab as the culprits who misled their fans and deserved their subsequent punishment. However, the documentary argues that this narrative is incomplete and misguided, targeting only the two public faces of a much larger deception. As Morvan, one of the duo’s members, explains, “People thought they knew the story, but they didn’t.”
The documentary provides a concise account of their spectacular rise and fall, predominantly through Morvan’s perspective. (Pilatus’s life took a darker turn, marked by drug addiction, and ended tragically in 1998.) Morvan, who now resides in Amsterdam with his wife and four children, grew up in Paris to Guadeloupean parents and later moved to Munich at the age of 18. In Munich, he met Pilatus, a breakdancer, at a party. They were the only people of color they knew in Munich and struggled to make ends meet. But they were exceptional dancers and enthusiastic emcees, both with dreams of stardom.
After working briefly as backup dancers and producing an unsteady demo, they crossed paths with Farian, a renowned producer responsible for global hits with the Eurodisco group Boney M. Like Milli Vanilli after them, Boney M was a Farian creation that relied on lip-syncing. Morvan and Pilatus signed a multi-album contract with Farian when they were 21 and 24, respectively, without fully comprehending the terms, let alone the possibility of lip-syncing. They were in need of money, and Farian was a hitmaker. Morvan recollects, “We were so naive that when the contract was put on the table, it was never really implied, like, hey, go read that. There was no management, there was no protection. There were golden records on the wall, so that was enough.”
Months later, Farian informed Morvan and Pilatus that they wouldn’t be providing vocals for their debut single as Milli Vanilli. Morvan explains that they felt pressured into the ruse, fearing the financial consequences of breaking their recording contract. Ingrid Segieth, Farian’s former secretary and lover, asserts that they readily agreed. Regardless, the track became a hit, leading to fame and fortune at an astonishing pace. Morvan recalls that Milli Vanilli “embraced the lie.”
Numerous other individuals connected to Milli Vanilli corroborate Farian’s scheme and the music industry’s complicity, if not in the conspiracy, then in its continued support once profits began pouring in. This includes figures like Brad Howell and Charles Shaw, as well as archival footage of John Davis, the Black American singers whose real vocals were used on Milli Vanilli’s records. Additionally, the documentary reveals the long-hidden background singers, Jodie and Linda Rocco. “Downtown” Julie Brown, who hosted Milli Vanilli’s US MTV arena tour, recounts an incident in July 1989 when a malfunctioning vocal track nearly derailed the duo’s performance at the height of their fame. Former executives at Arista, the record company that managed the duo’s affairs in the US, claim that everyone, including company president Clive Davis, was aware of the lip-syncing months before the Grammy scandal erupted. (Clive Davis does not appear in the documentary, and in a 2017 interview, he denied any knowledge of the lip-syncing.)
The documentary director, Luke Korem, expressed his surprise at the resistance to unveiling who knew what, and when, even after 30 years. He believes this reluctance stems from the guilt and shame associated with the tragic downfall of Rob Pilatus. The film’s latter half is marked by the shadow of Pilatus’s untimely death, as public sentiment quickly shifted from fascination to ridicule regarding Milli Vanilli. In a particularly striking scene, the duo holds a press conference to address the scandal. Morvan sits in near silence, his face reflecting his shock and disbelief in real time. Pilatus, on the other hand, alternates between apologizing and justifying their collaboration with Farian as an escape from poverty and a pursuit of stardom. At one point, he confronts a white journalist who indignantly asks if they had ever lived in the projects, stating that they had no money and wanted to be stars. The journalist, almost pleading, retorts, “Your talent would have gotten you out!” An off-camera remark adds, “Spoken like a true white boy.”
As the film’s music critic Hanif Abdurraqib suggests, there was an underlying current of racism in the public’s response. Milli Vanilli primarily had a white audience, and the sense of betrayal was rooted in the belief that these Black artists had deceived them with fake performances. The documentary posits that the issue wasn’t merely the culpability of Rob and Fab, but the fact that they were left to shoulder the entire scandal alone. Morvan asks, “Do they deserve to be called out on some level? Sure. But what about everybody else?” Farian, Arista, their record executives, and their management emerged relatively unscathed.