June 11, 2023
by Carla Hay
Directed by Luke Korem
Culture Representation: The documentary film “Milli Vanilli” has a group of black people and white people, mostly with ties to the music industry, discussing pop duo Milli Vanilli, whose career peaked in 1989 and 1990, before the duo was exposed for not singing any of the songs on Milli Vanilli’s blockbuster debut album.
Culture Clash: Milli Vanilli members Rob Pilatus (from Germany) and Fab Morvan (from France) say that they were exploited by German music producer Frank Farian, who came up with the idea for this fraud.
Culture Audience: “Milli Vanilli” will appeal primarily to people who used to be fans of Milli Vanilli and anyone who wants to watch a documentary about how the music industry was in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“Milli Vanilli” is a riveting, must-see documentary that goes deeper than any “Behind the Music” episode, because it exposes the exploitation behind the scandal. Music producer Frank Farian, the story’s chief villain, is absent, but the damage he caused is on full display. The movie is a scathing indictment of not just Farian but also other people behind the scenes who knew that Milli Vanilli was a fraud but went along with it because they were personally profiting off of this fraud. Some of those people are interviewed in the documentary, which had its world premiere at the Tribeca Festival.
Even though former Milli Vanilli member Fabrice “Fab” Morvan has told his story in interviews many times since Milli Vanilli was disgraced in 1990, the documentary allows Morvan to have more of a voice than previous Milli Vanilli documentaries. Rob Pilatus, the other member of Milli Vanilli, died in 1998, of an overdose of alcohol and prescription medication, after years of battling substance abuse. Pilatus’ year of birth has been disputed, but he was believed to be 32 or 33 when he died.
Directed by Luke Korem, the “Milli Vanilli” documentary fills in some of the blanks that were noticeable in VH1’s “Behind the Music” episode on Milli Vanilli, the artist profiled in the very first “Behind the Music” episode in 1997. Pilatus was still alive and participated in that “Behind the Music” episode, but there were some unanswered questions in the “Behind the Music” episode that the “Milli Vanilli” documentary mostly answers, such as record company involvement in covering up the scam. (MTV Entertainment Studios, the production company behind the Milli Vanilli documentary, is owned by Paramount, which also owns VH1.)
Morvan (who was born in 1966 in Paris) says he wanted to be a singer and a dancer from an early age. He describes his childhood of being an “abusive environment.” Morvan adds, “So, I ran away.” Morvan met Pilatus at a dance seminar at a club in Munich, Germany. The two immediately bonded over similar backgrounds and shared goals.
Morvan says of Pilatus, “Just like me, he was looking for family.” Pilatus, who was biracial, was adopted by a white family in Germany. His white biological mother was a stripper, while his black biological father is unknown.
In the documentary, the story is retold about how a struggling and desperate Morvan and Pilatus met German producer Farian in 1988. Morvan had relocated to Germany by then, and he and Pilatus were getting small gigs as DJs and dancers. Pilatus also worked as a model. At the time, Morvan and Pilatus were part of a short-lived trio called Empire Bizarre, whose other member was a woman named Charliene. Morvan says that he and Pilatus were living together in poverty and were close like brothers.
Farian’s main claim to fame at the time was Boney M, a pop/R&B group that had a string of hits (mostly in Europe) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, such as “Daddy Cool,” “Ma Baker,” “Belfast,” “Sunny,” “Rasputin,” “Mary’s Boy Child/Oh My Lord” and “Rivers of Babylon.” Just like Milli Vanilli, Boney M was later exposed to be a group that had other people recording the vocals on the songs.
Morvan and Pilatus had been getting some local publicity in Germany, which is how Farian heard about them. Farian invited them to his recording studio in Frankfurt, Germany. Pilatus and Morvan recorded a demo with Farian, who dictated what his vision for them would be. He said that we would sign them and give them all the funds that they needed to launch a music career but they could not sing on their first album.
After Milli Vanilli was exposed as a singing fraud, Morvan and Pilatus (when he was alive) repeatedly said in interviews that at the time they signed the contract with Farian, he had promised them that they could sing on Milli Vanilli’s second album, but Farian reneged on that promise. This dispute ultimately led to the downfall of Milli Vanilli. Morvan and Pilatus said that before they became famous and had signed with Farian, they had regrets about the contract and tried to back out of it, but Farian threatened to sue them for all the money he had already invested in them.
Milli Vanilli’s rapid rise to success is a well-known story that is repeated here. Milli Vanilli’s 1989 debut album, “Girl You Know It’s True,” was an instant smash, first in Europe (where the album was released in 1988, under the title “All or Nothing,” with a slightly different tracklisting) and then in several other continents. The album had major hits, including the title track, “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You,” “Blame It on the Rain” and “Baby Don’t Forget My Number.” In 1991, Milli Vanilli won the Grammy for Best New Artist. In the end, it was Farian who exposed the Milli Vanilli vocals fraud when Morvan and Pilatus threatened to expose the fraud because Farian wouldn’t let them sing their real vocals on Milli Vanilli’s second album.
Farian, who now lives in seclusion, is not interviewed in the documentary. He did not respond to the filmmakers’ requests for an interview. However, the “Milli Vanilli” documentary has interviews with several people who knew the truth behind the scenes, including Ingrid Segieth, whose nickname Milli was the inspiration for the Milli Vanilli name.
Segieth was Farian’s secretary and girlfriend at the time. She says she was very close to Pilatus, although she denies that she and Pilatus ever had a romantic relationship. The most she will admit to is that she and Pilatus would platonically cuddle and sleep in the same bed on many occasions. “We loved each other without the sex,” Segieth comments.
Segieth was the person who found Pilatus dead of an overdose in Friedrichsdorf, Germany. She cries in the documentary over this memory and says she is ashamed of any part she played in his downfall. She denies any claims that Farian threatened to sue Morvan and Pilatus if they backed out of the contract. Segieth also says in the documentary that Morvan and Pilatus willingly signed the contract and didn’t object to having other people sing Milli Vanilli songs on the first Milli Vanilli album.
Morvan admits it, up to a point, because he still claims that he and Pilatus regretted the contract soon after they signed it, but they tried to justify those regrets after success came quickly for them. Morvan says that he and Pilatus “got sucked into the fame, power and adoration … We embraced the lie … It was difficult not to say no to this new life … That became very addictive.”
Other people interviewed in the documentary who knew the truth from the beginning are the people who sang on Milli Vanilli’s first album: Brad Howell, who did the vocals that Pilatus lip synced in public; Charles Shaw, who did the vocals that Morvan lip synced in public; and twin sisters Linda Rocco and Jodie Rocco, who both did backup vocals on the album. They don’t have much to say that they haven’t already talked about in other interviews.
Shaw was the first to go public (in 1988) about Pilatus and Morvan not singing on Milli Vanlli’s first album. But by his own admission, Farian paid him off, and Shaw retracted his statements at the time. Shaw was replaced by John Davis, who died in 2021, at the age of 66.
And what about people at Milli Vanilli’s record companies? This is where the “Milli Vanilli” documentary gets interesting. Milli Vanilli was signed to Arista Records (led by Clive Davis at the time) in the United States. Davis is not interviewed in the documentary, but Ken Levy, who was a senior vice president at Arista at the time, is interviewed and essentially admits that high-ranking people at Arista (including Davis) knew that Pilatus and Morvan didn’t sing on Milli Vanilli’s first album, but only after the album was released in Europe and Milli Vanilli had signed with Arista. Thomas Stein, who worked for Ariola Records (Milli Vanilli’s record company in Germany), denies knowing that Morvan and Pilatus did not sing on Milli Vanilli’s first album before the album was released in Europe.
Richard Sweret, who worked in artist A&R at Arista, says that people from the record company weren’t allowed in the studio for Milli Vanilli sessions, which he says were under Farian’s tight control. Mitchell Cohen, another former A&R executive for Arista, echoes that claim and says that although it was weird not to see Morvan and Pilatus do any recordings in the studio, Arista took the album “on faith” from Farian that everything was legitimate.
Arista had signed Milli Vanilli after the Milli’s first album was a success in Europe, so these former Arista executives say that they didn’t question the validity of the vocals at the time that Milli Vanilli had completed the album. The “All or Nothing” album released in Europe actually didn’t have the names of Morvan and Pilatus on it, but the former Arista executives interviewed in the documentary say that they didn’t notice that detail at the time.
When it came time for Milli Vanilli to do live performances, that’s when more people behind the scenes found out that Morvan and Pilatus didn’t sing the vocals on the album. The former Arista executives say that by then, Milli Vanilli was a success for a lot of people, and it would’ve been too embarrassing for the secret to be exposed. When Milli Vanilli went on tour or performed on TV, it was common for several artists to lip sync to recordings, so there were many people behind the scenes who didn’t question when Pilatus and Morvan did that too.
However, Mill Vanilli’s backup touring musicians knew the truth early on. Keith Yoni, the bass player for Milli Vanill’s backup band, says in the documentary that he knew something was “off” in their first rehearsals when the backup musicians were there but the “singers” were not. It’s easy to see how these backup musicians would not tell this secret because they wanted to keep their jobs.
The documentary mentions the infamous incident on July 21, 1989, in Bristol, Connecticut, when Milli Vanilli was performing on stage for the Club MTV tour. The recording that Pilatus and Morvan were lip syncing to got stuck and repeated loudly. Pilatus and Morvan ran off stage in embarassment. The crowd got angry and rowdy, not because of the lip syncing but because Pilatus and Morvan cut their performance short. “Downtown” Julie Brown, who was a VJ on MTV at the time and was on the Club MTV tour, says in the documentary that Pilatus had a meltdown backstage over this incident.
However, this public glitch didn’t slow down Milli Vanilli, since many people who saw this mishap assumed that Morvan and Pilatus still recorded the songs on Milli Vanilli’s first album but were lip syncing to the songs in concert. Lip syncing in concert is a common practice that is looked down on by critics but accepted by most fans. Lip syncing in concert was less accepted then as it is now. Artists in pop music tend to get a more leniency about lip syncing in concert, compared to other genres where artists are expected to have more authenticity.
The usual perils of sudden fame are detailed in the documentary. Morvan says that he and Pilatus indulged in a lot of drugs and promiscuity. Pilatus’ ego began to get out of control, as he began making statements in interviews that Milli Vanilli was better and more talented than legendary artists such as Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger.
The beginning of the end for Milli Vanilli was winning the Grammy Award for Best New Artist. Shaw comments, “Once they won the Grammy, they hung themselves.” Documentary interviewees who knew Farian at the time say that that Farian did not want Milli Vanilli to be submitted for any Grammy Awards consideration, out of fear that the vocals fraud secret would be exposed.
However, Todd Headlee, who was the assistant to Sandy Gallin (Milli Vanilli’s manager at the time) didn’t know that. (Gallin died in 2017. He was 76.) Headlee went ahead on his own initiative and submitted Milli Vanilli for Best New Artist and other Grammy categories. Headlee says in the documentary that he thought he was doing a good thing for Milli Vanilli with these Grammy submissions and was confused when many people in Milli Vanilli’s inner circle were upset over Milli Vanilli being submitted for the Grammys.
The Recording Academy, which was then known as the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) is the industry group that votes for the Grammys. At the time, NARAS had a policy at the time that any arist performing at the Grammys had to perform live. However, Segieth says in the documentary that people at Arista Records (she doesn’t name names) bribed Michael Greene, who was NARAS CEO from 1988 to 2002, to let Milli Vanilli lip sync on the Grammy Awards in 1990. Twelve years later, Greene resigned from NARAS in disgrace over sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations.
After Farian exposed Milli Vanilli for being vocal frauds, Pilatus and Morvan did a notorious press conference in November 1990, when they gave back their Grammy Award trophies that they won in February of that year. The media people at the press conference asked tough questions, and many of the reporters were visibly angry. However, the documentary does a very good job of pointing out that while most people in the media and the general public focused their wrath on Pilatus and Morvan, the person who masterminded this fraud (Farian) escaped relatively unscathed. There are also racial implications to what Farian did, since he built his entire career from exploiting black artists.
Farian would go on to produce a band called the Real Milli Vanilli, with members that included Davis, Howell, but that band flopped. And so did comeback attempts by Pilatus and Morvan, who renamed their act Rob & Fab, which released a self-titled album in 1993. Pilatus died before doing a promotional tour for Rob & Fab’s “Back and in Attack” album, which was never released.
Morvan has been a solo artist for several years (he says he no longer lip syncs when performing live), and he seems content with his current life, although he’s still obviously affected by Pilatus’ death and the highs and lows of Milli Vanilli. The documentary includes an interview with Morvan’s Dutch partner Tessa van der Steen, who is the mother of Fab’s children and who works as a health coach/orthomolecular therapist. She says she didn’t know who he was when she first met him.
As for what led to Rob Pilatus’ downward spiral, Carmen Pilatus, Rob’s adoptive sister, comments about Rob: “He sought attention that he didn’t get as a child.” She also describes Rob in his youth as someone who would make up elaborate stories about himself.
She says that Rob felt tremendous guilt about the fraud from the beginning of Milli Vanilli: “He drank and took more drugs to black out,” Morvan says of how Rob dealt with the guilt. Carmen says that Rob could be “vicious when he was on drugs.” Most of her disgust is for Farian, whom she says showed up at Rob’s funeral, after the service was over, just so he could be photographed by the media.
Other people interviewed in the documentary include recording engineer Tom Gordon, who worked on the “Fab & Rob” album; songwriter Diane Warren, who wrote “Blame It on the Rain” and says she didn’t know about the lip syncing until after the song was a hit; music producer/songwriter Timbaland; former BET executive Stephen Hill; music producer/songwriter Toby Gad; and music journalists/critics Rob Sheffield, Hanif Abdurraqib and Gil Kaufman. “Milli Vanilli” is a documentary about one of the biggest scandals in the music industry, but it’s also a cautionary “be careful what you wish for” tale for entertainers who want to be rich and famous at any cost.
UPDATE: Paramount+ will premiere “Milli Vanilli” on October 24, 2023.
January 23, 2024 UPDATE: Frank Farian died in his Miami home on January 23, 2024. He was 82.