“Nine”: the Movie Musical

I’m a year late to the party, but I finally caught up with Rob Marshall‘s film adaptation of Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit‘s Nine. The stage musical, which opened under the wire in 1982 to win Best Musical over early favorite Dreamgirls, is loosely based on Fellini’s 8 1/2, which tells the story of an acclaimed Italian film director who retreats to a spa – and his memories and fantasies – when he hits a rut in his personal and professional lives. The Fellini film and the musical inspired by it are both unusual, abstract and ultimately compelling. It took years for Nine to get a big screen adaptation, something that was green lit when the movie musical came back into favor this past decade. Unfortunately, it’s one of the worst stage to screen adaptations I have ever seen.

Onstage, Nine opens itself up to theatrical invention and with the right director, such as Tommy Tune or David Leveaux, the concept musical works wonders. In both Broadway incarnations, the show has been a major success winning acclaim and awards. Both directors gave the musical its own personality which made it something different from the film upon which it was based. When it came to the film it seems that they picked people who hate the musical to write and direct it. Everything about the film, especially its marketing, attempts to turn Nine into 8 1/2: the Musical which it is not and cannot be.

It’s hard to care about music in a film when there is no reason for anyone to be singing about anything. The songs come out of nowhere, add nothing and do nothing for the show’s reputation. Some film critics were quick to dismiss the music, but I wonder if they realized how many great numbers were lost in the shuffle. Yeston’s full score is impressive, especially a 12 minute mini-opera that is the centerpiece of the second act. Too many important songs have been dropped; and the score’s second act is mostly gone. Maury Yeston wrote three news songs for the film, none of which are very good. The worst is Kate Hudson’s period shlockfest “Cinema Italiano” which becomes an unintentional spoof of the 1960s.

The musical’s master stroke was that there is only one man in the cast, the roles around him are all women, including his antagonists and his formidable film producer. Onstage Liliane LeFleur’s “Folies Bergere” came out of a desire to have Contini direct a musical for her. Whether it was Liliane Montevecchi wrapping herself in 30 foot boa or Chita Rivera lifting her leg onto Antonio Banderas’ shoulder in a tango, the number also showed that a woman of a certain age could be both powerful and sexy. But in the film, she’s a costume designer and confidante. Gone is the powerful, alluring businesswoman and in her stead is a dowdy side kick and shoulder support. The number has no place in the world of the film. Making Contini’s producer a man may seem more naturalistic, but it is a direct defiance of the musical.

In spite of the all-star cast, there is very little here for anyone to play. Marion Cotillard shines in spite of everything around her as Luisa, the director’s wife. Her “My Husband Makes Movies” is the film’s high point. The nadir comes in the misguided strip tease “Take It All” which inexplicably replaced the far superior dismissal “Be On Your Own.” Penelope Cruz received an Oscar nomination as the lover Carla, but the character as scripted is merely a shell of what she was in Kopit’s libretto. Sophia Loren, Nicole Kidman and Fergie are reduced to glorified cameos. (For the record, Fergie offers a stunning “Be Italian” but is undone by flashy, distracting edits). The second act of the musical has been completely jettisoned for what seems to be all smoke and mirrors.

Nine hinges on the central performance of its Guido Contini. Though he’s one of our most brilliant film actors, Daniel Day-Lewis is terribly miscast. Even though Contini is selfish, immature and sleeping with half the town, he’s supposed to be at least someone likable. Casting Day-Lewis and making Guido ten years older only serves to further alienate the audience. His singing isn’t terrible, but he only sings “Guido’s Song” and “I Can’t Make This Movie” which makes him seem even more narcissistic and less sympathetic. Contini is supposed to be an immature 40 year old, with a playful charm that attracts these women even more than his talent or stardom. Day-Lewis has none of those qualities, sulking silently like a self-centered cold fish and most criminally lacks any spark of passion for film making or the women surrounding him.

The screenplay by Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella is just pitiful. The enjoyable libretto has been completely replaced by some of the most cliche-ridden, idiotic dialogue I’ve heard in years. Every movie or sex related line is rehashed here. The structure doesn’t allow any sort of organic flow from scene to scene. Transitions are awkward, abrupt. There is no attempt at any dramatic through line.

Marshall has created a dazzling series of images and scenes, but there is no link between them. There isn’t much plot to begin with – and I’m amazed it was even possible – but somehow he has made the film even more dramatically inert than the stage show. His musical numbers have the look of half-baked ideas leftover from Chicago. I realized a few minutes into the film that it was going nowhere pretty fast, but I made the conscious decision to watch it until its inexplicably ambiguous and unsatisfying end. There are homages to the original film throughout, which only proves his lack of originality. Fellini he ain’t…

Ultimately, Nine is all style and no substance. Even for a train wreck, it’s just plain boring. I can only hope the powers that be keep Rob Marshall far away from the rumored film adaptation of Follies.

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