Fetishism is the first word that comes to mind when considering Rob Marshall’s newest musical film, Nine. Take your pick of which element is fetishized: Europe, the 1960s, cinema, Penélope Cruz, etc. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s actually quite an accurate read of how we now view the work of Federico Fellini and his peers. The filmmaker, on whose 8 ½ the 1982 musical, and by proxy this film, is based is known not only for his mastery of film language but for his keen eye for style. Of course, Fellini’s film was not a musical, but a backstage circus in the life of a woebegone director. Converting it to a stage musical must have been daunting enough, but bringing it back to the screen is something of a chore.
Daniel Day-Lewis is Guido Contini, the Italian director whose next film is sold as being his return to his glory days. The problem is that he hasn’t written it yet, and from the outset we learn he begins shooting in ten days. He is also a womanizer, haunted by the dream versions of the real women in his life. Though he is surrounded by men, it is the women who serves as his muses, for better or worse. Day-Lewis brings not only his uncanny abilities of vocal interpretation but also an incredible physicality to the Italian auteur. Gliding across the screen, he feels ten feet tall atop legs made of feathers. Sure, he’s no Fred Astaire, but if someone asked him to he could probably pull that off too.
Just as Fellini’s 8 ½ was a backstage film, this is a backstage musical. Nearly all of the numbers, in at least some capacity, take place on a soundstage that exists in the main character’s mind. Well, it’s also the set of his upcoming film, but really it’s just in his mind. The trouble is that this gimmick falls flat for a few reasons. First off, the musical numbers do little to move the story forward, even emotionally. Almost every single song deals with how much of a failure Guido has become later in life. If you had to take a shot every time the name Guido was uttered in a song, you’d be dead by the third reel. These indulgences would be fine if we actually learned anything useful about the character, but we know just about everything up front.
On top of that, some of the songs are just complete failures, such as Kate Hudson’s “Cinema Italiano”. This number, a hippy dippy boogaloo of sorts, is so boring musically, so conceptually flawed and so out of place in this film, the only consolation the viewer has is that it was written exclusively for the film. Meaning theatergoers were spared this insanity. On the other had, the showstopper of the bunch, Fergie’s “Be Italian”, is catchy enough to get stuck in your head and choreographed quite nicely for the stage, but fails to wow on screen. If I were watching the sandy tambourining live, I’d be enthralled, but it just doesn’t translate to cinema.
The only number that stands out is “I Can’t Make this Movie”, which features Day-Lewis singing in front of a film screen playing dailies from the film within a film. He feels hauntingly close to the audience in this instance, as if he is in the room sharing a moment with us. No doubt this will translate nicely to Americans’ new HDTVs when this hits Blu Ray. Ironically Also of note is Marion Cotillard’s “Take it All”, the only song that feels emotionally motivated in the whole piece.
Rob Marshall certainly lead the movement towards musical cinema early in the 2000s with Chicago, a film whose success launched a number of Broadway adaptations. I would have loved to have seen this show on Broadway under Mr. Marshall’s tutelage, but alas we have the film instead. It’s neither a very good musical nor a very good movie, but I believe audiences are still yearning for the return to musical cinema, so they will welcome this addition of something different.