No One Here, But NINE: A Review in Nine Parts
A FILM - GET IT? - A FILM
"The problem is the author's lost control," sings Guido Contini in the pulsating penultimate song of the film soundtrack of NINE, simultaneously grasping for words and grasping for breath as he reaches a breaking point; a crisis of spirit, faith and heart. Show purists, too, sensed a crisis when they got word Rob Marshall was re-imagining David Leveaux‘s 2003 re-imagining of Tommy Tune‘s 1982 re-imagining of Frederico Fellini's 8 ½ or OTTO E MEZZO, originally titled LA BELLA CONFUZIONE and only given its numerical title due to the studio's pressure to call the film something, and this auto-biographical surrealistic film was his eighth film (with two additional films he co-directed to his credit). For those who find the stage show near perfect they must have thought that quote - and original title of the source material itself - was presciently applicable to the show's author, Maury Yeston, and the film's director and choreographer, Rob Marshall, in the two years leading up to the film version when word began to spread about how different from the stage show the film was shaping up to be. To many NINE fans, it was beginning to sound like Fosse's CABARET all over again. But, isn't the stage the stage and film, well, film? Furthermore, all things considered, is comparison to inarguably the greatest movie musical of the last thirty-five years such a bad thing or even damning praise? The answer is unquestionably: Nein.
"He cut what? "Be On Your Own"?! Really? The eleven o'clock number?!" was one of many murmurings here on BWW and elsewhere when word began to spread about the many changes to the text that were implemented to bring it back to Fellini‘s original surrealistic film vision. "Kidman is singing "Unusual Way, and if that's not bad enough, she's singing it down the octave" was another such remark, similarly met with jeers instead of cheers, few realizing the lyrics were almost always unintelligible due to the sky-high vocal lines of the original despite any of the across-the-board stellar Claudia's best attempts. Yet, the majority of the naysayers failed to accept the idea of these changes even when Yeston himself explained and subsequently praised the changes he had made to the text in a recent Playbill article. "They cast a Brit as a Parisienne?" "A Frenchwoman as an Italian?" "An Aussie as a Swede?" Yes, yes and yes. And they all work like gangbusters and sound fantastic. Don't believe my word alone because, after all, the accents speak, and the voices sing, for themselves.
(A note, and more: The accents are one thing that has always caused controversy amongst collectors in reference to any of the various cast recordings, Krakowski's "Seemple"-sounding "Simple" and Banderas's thick Spanish-by-way-of-Italy - or is it Italian-by-way-of-Spain? - accent being the most notable examples of this, though the original Broadway recording and the London concert have their fair share of inaccurately illustrated Italians as well. And, anyway, there is no "Seemple" here to worry about, nor is there "Simple" at all: it has been cut, as have a number of other numbers. Though Marshall has confirmed that that song as well as "Only With You", "Be On Your Own" and "Take It All (Trio)" were all recorded, though apparently only "Only With You" was filmed, none make an appearance on the soundtrack like the similarly filmed-but-cut "Class" in Marshall's CHICAGO did on its soundtrack recording. In Yeston and Marshall's reworking of the material to bring NINE back to OTTO E MEZZO, or - to use a show phrase - back to before, they have had to let a lot of the score go - and some of the fans as well. This was necessary to make the film all it can be as a film. This process is anything but, well, simple. In this instance, when it comes to the cutting down and consolidation of the stage score, "Take It All" is a much more fitting term. About seventy-percent of the stage score is gone. Again, this is CABARET treatment, not CHICAGO so it is best for the show‘s purists to get past that before they even dive in to this recording or the film itself.)
AS AUTHOR AND DIRECTOR
To call the soundtrack for NINE orgasmic would be slightly cliché, particularly given the climax of one of the show's most memorable songs "A Call From The Vatican", yet that is precisely what it is. Furthermore, each of the film's ten solo songs feature a truly orgasmic moment in which the characters, the situation and the drama meet the music and lyrics somewhere between heaven and earth and the result is a honestly heavenly-only harmony that is impossible to deny. The final notes matching the words, mirroring the falling action following a climax, "in a very unusual way", for instance, provide a curious and revealing parallel to the outright caterwaul of sexual release implicit in the high note and slide down the scale of the "Guido!" in Cruz's exceptional "A Call From The Vatican". "Be Italian" and "Cinema Italiano" all have quite forthrightly self-evident climactic moments, or, if you prefer, moments of climax, on the final chorus of "Be" and the final "Guido" of the bridge in each respective song. In a way, each woman's song also mirrors the feel and style of the relationship Guido had with each woman - in most cases we may also infer about how he treated them in bed, and they him. Yeston provides succinct five minute relationship microcosms for each expertly grafted gem in this gold crown of his accomplished and varied scores. This does not necessarily hold true for every moment of his other generally strong stage work, but he is unendingly fearless and has musicalized everything from the life of Goya to the Phantom of the Opera himself to The Queen of Basin Street and various passengers on the Titanic as well as the temporary denizens of the Grand Hotel. Even as it now stands, this is still a magnificent score, lean and mean and highly effective.
Yeston understands that all of these relationships have highs and lows, though some much higher and some much lower. Perhaps the character of Luisa stands out amidst the others because she can express two at first incomprehensibly complex perspectives on her relationship with Guido in her two diametrically opposed and varied musical numbers. Indeed, each song is now a showcase unlike they even were with Tune's adroit wizardry in the original Broadway production, and that claim can be made without even the pleasure of seeing them play out onscreen. "Unusual Way" is positively chilling but warms at the bridge in such a way as to chill the soul, the heart and brain at once, no longer an alluring song but a sensuous and sad declaration of love that is doomed from the very first not, from the start. Yet, it has soul, somehow, particularly at the now carefully caressing climax. The high note in "A Call From The Vatican" - which Miss Cruz does, indeed, hit head on with no auto-tuning evident - is the first of many sensuous and sexy moments in a masterful score with the soundtrack running the gamut from lovely lilting lullaby ("Guarda La Luna") to lusty and lasciviously lewd ("Take it All"), the new numbers highlighting higher highs and lower lows than the show itself ever did, or at least not in this stylish new manner.
I CAN'T MAKE THIS MOVIE
This is not Tommy Tune's NINE or Fellini's NINE or even Yeston's NINE - this is Rob Marshall's NINE. If you can't abide changes, large and small, than this soundtrack will inevitably disappoint you as only a quarter of the stage score as we know it remains - and most of it that remains has been adjusted according the new vision and direction of the material on film. It's certainly not bad or necessarily that much better than the show as it used to be on stage, just very different and brought back to its Fellini roots, though to some those words - different and bad - are all one in the same when it comes to NINE or, as at least as it was argued by the revival's many, in my opinion generally unfounded, detractors. It is hard for me to find sympathy for those bemoaning the loss of "The Germans At The Spa," always a weak and problematic number, among myriad other malicious remarks lobbed at David Leveaux's revival which proved to be equally as successful as the original, performance run-wise, and generally receiving equal, if not all-around better, reviews from the critics. I had the privilege of seeing the revival on stage and if this NINE on film merely works as well as it does on disc than I will be happy to report that it works best of all incarnations, on stage or on screen. Not to say that either Broadway production was anything less than enjoyable on stage, just the whole was not the sum of its parts at all times. The original production may have been perfect to many, at least at the time, and I for one - and perhaps I am the only one, though I can feel fans multiplying with each play of this disc or download of the digital files starting Tuesday - can pretty much make the same argument for the film, or at least the soundtrack, now, nearly thirty years later. This NINE is without a doubt a solid 9.9 out of 10, perhaps even a perfect ten. And there are many more than merely nine reasons why this is so, but here are nine words that immediately occurred to me when I first heard the soundtrack that I will share with you now to whet your appetite: Cool. Chilling. Cathartic. Surreal. Ferocious. Orgasmic. Melancholy. Magical. Mine. (The last word implies it is what I had hoped would always happen - for the film to be brought back to its roots in Fellini's unparalleled masterpiece on which it is based).
In the liner notes to the film soundtrack Yeston writes, "What a gift - for me to be given the chance to do it all over again, afresh, with this magnificent visionary of a director," and that feeling informs every sung syllable and mellifluous melody of the vastly revised score represented on the soundtrack. Those looking for the lush, soaring soprano of Laura Benanti's "Unusual Way" need look elsewhere for Kidman‘s smoky, cool, intimate reading of the song is a sexual salve compared to Benanti‘s lustful, yet almost too-knowing, luster and somnolent vocal timbre. Those hoping for a plucky, petite Parisienne like Montevecchi, (though I have heard she is actually French-Canadian not unlike Fifi D'Orsay of the original FOLLIES) punching up her plosives and accentuating each and every one of the accent agues in "Folies Bergere" may not be satisfied by Dench who is more regal and masculine than the riotous and ribald Montevecchi or mischievous Rivera. Also, those hoping for the steely, chilly tone of Ann Crumb or Mary Stuart Masterson's Luisa will find little of that in Cotillard's careful and caring "My Husband Makes Movies" and her plaintive, painful "Take It All", a new number written expressly for the film. More on that, and the other new songs, later. This is not NINE as we know it at all. It has been reworked from top-to-bottom. Nary a note has been passed over in this drastic re-haul of the material. Yet, the sonic experience is nearly as effective as the show on stage, if not more so, and certainly more polished and pizzazz-y than any production preserved on disc thus far, despite some very striking and strong-to-the-point-of-intimidating performances given in past productions preserved on disc.
So, pour some extra foam in your latte and adjust your Ray-bans and come with me on a short survey of NINE as it exists on disc and digital download.
The London concert recording, intriguing to backstage gossip hounds if only for the eleventh hour replacement of Sarah Brightman, has a solid if tentatively sung Guido in Jonathan Pryce and the best belted version of "Unusual Way" on record. Elaine Paige is positively exquisite on this track and though a strong performance is also given by Ann Crumb with a ferocious, octane fuel-driven "Be On Your Own" it is Paige that ultimately owns this recording. Pryce's plaintive and passionate "I Can't Make This Movie," besides the film version - again, more on that later - also stands above the others as far as recorded Guido's generally go. These strong elements aside, in general the recording is slightly sparse-sounding and wooden despite a huge orchestra and chorus. When it was first released, this Jay recording boasted itself as being the first recording of the complete score and for that alone it was cherished above all other NINE recordings by many of the show's fans, myself included, for the years leading up to the re-release of the complete Broadway cast recording which was significantly shorter in it's original pressing. This London concert recording was also originally notable for featuring the inclusion of male members in the chorus, among one of the only recordings or staging's to do so, though the film version has wisely brought it back to its all-female roots.
TI VOGLIO BENE
The Broadway cast recording, while showcasing truly iconic performances in the inimitable Ms. Montevecchi, Miss Morris and Miss Akers, with Shelly Burch also a highlight, lacks spark. The revised recording released in 2005 is much improved due to a truckload of new tracks and is as close as we can get, on record, to the original production as it was originally presented with Tune's legendary sparse extravagance and effusive elegance. The best performance of the recording certainly does not go to Raul Julia, who, while magnificent on stage, doest not truly translate to record very well at all on any of his cast recordings. (The Public Theater THE THREEPENNY OPERA recording is the most tolerable of his recorded roles and even that has some painfully flat singing and lazy line-readings by the usually magnetic Mr. Julia) His performance was singular, but ultimately, and quite surprisingly, surpass-able, as proved, at least in the vocal department, by both Antonio Banderas and Daniel Day-Lewis. The ladies fare much, much better.
The Broadway revival cast recording is the best recording of the complete score, more or less, at least as it was and is presented in performance on stage. Jane Krakowski gives the best "A Call From The Vatican" on record, though Cruz's is quite ferocious and the new ending is a definite improvement, but it's hard to fit a MGM orchestra into a Broadway theatre these days, no? Ripley's performance of the number on THE Maury Yeston SONGBOOK is far from a personal favorite, though that recording's "Unusual Way" as expressed by the honey-coated-vocal-cords of Brian d'Arcy James is a personal favorite and an obvious inspiration for the re-interpretation of the song by Miss Kidman for the soundtrack. Laura Benanti's "Unusual Way" at first sounds to be, in a word, perfection. How could anything top that? Yet, as Yeston himself points out, the sacrifice of sonorousness for sing-ability ultimately works in this song's favor, though originally when I heard that statement I admit I was skeptical. Kidman nails it, providing an alternative take on the track overflowing with sensuality and a slight sadness, revealing a depth of understanding never expressed before in the gorgeously sung but emotionally vacant portrayals by Ms. Burch and Benanti. Though Guido's counterpoint in "Unusual Way" is nearly divine in idea, it falters in performance on both Broadway cast albums due to the difficult phrasing of it which muddles up the melody and lessens the song's overall impact. And the accents really can kill the effortless emotionality of this song when sung as it was originally written, as both Mr. Julia and Banderas prove, making it all a bit of a mish-mash. That brings us to Guido himself, as played by Banderas who is good but not great. He was much better on stage and his screaming in "I Can't Make This Movie" goes too far, nearly verging on melodrama and caricature. Mr. Daniel Day Lewis, on the other hand, screams less than both Julia or Banderas and sings, dare I say it, better. Choir boy no more. I've never been a big fan of "Guido's Song", but I must admit the soundtrack version is the best sounding of the bunch. Mary Beth Peil's "Nine" is a highlight and Masterson's "Be On Your Own" is my personal favorite performance of the song, though Crumb's is better sung. Betty Buckley's recording of this song, in my opinion, displays everything a film audience would perceive as over-the-top and ugly in a more traditional stage-to-screen transfer which NINE, judging from the soundtrack and press materials, thankfully is not. That being said, I'd love to hear Cotillard's version of the song - and yes, it was recorded - and if enough of you find my recommendation worthy of your hard earned dollar and purchase the soundtrack, which is available starting today (12/15), they may release a Deluxe version featuring excised but recorded material. All this being said, the Broadway Revival recording remains the best recorded version of the stage score.
TAKE IT ALL
As for cut material and new material on the soundtrack, I have clearly voiced my feeling that film is film and theatre is theatre so the fact that the majority of the score is missing is a non-issue, though I am sure if the film is a success future productions will inevitably include moments from the film version if it proves to be a success, as the recent revival of DREAMGIRLS with its incorporation of "Listen" proved and rumors of HAIRSPRAY licensing the film's new song "Ladies' Choice" as an additional song in the score surfaced. As the Broadway revival revealed, it is not hard to miss "Germans At the Spa" and, actually, I could do with the inclusion of a couple of the new film songs in the stage score either as new moments or replacements/alternates for the existing songs in future productions of the show on Broadway and beyond. In the place of "Nine" and "The Trouble With Contini", it would be quite simple to insert as an additional character moment or to outright replace, respectively, "Guarda La Luna" and "Cinema Italiano," though the stage Stephanie as written is a far cry from the film character who is essentially a new character altogether. It would be possible to even have the audacity, dare I say it, to justifiably include "Take It All". After all, the film treatment at one time included a trio version of "Take It All" and Yeston originally dramatized the song as such, featuring Luisa singing lead in addition to Carla and Claudia in the burlesque bump-and-grind paean to pissed-off wives with philandering husbands everywhere.
Indeed, that moment would be a more rousing eleven o' clock number, potentially, than "Be On Your Own" and "I Can't Make This Movie" ever seem to be on stage, though the stage score could not withstand the loss of either of those integral moments and I am certainly not advocating such meddling with the score. I am merely hypothesizing. In any event, I think it would be interesting to see how the songs could work on stage as revivals remain continually tinkered with, particularly on Broadway, it seems. As far as new songs go, "Cinema Italiano" as performed by Kate Hudson is another new jewel in the NINE crown and enough cannot be said for how wonderfully it ties together the themes of the show with the cultural milieu of the time which was never truly explored in any great detail in the stage version (despite the presence of the film producer Liliane LaFleur who is now, of course, the head costume designer and Guido‘s confidante). In the soundtrack's liner notes, Yeston remarks on his obsession with all things Italian cinema as a teenager on the precipice of his compositional career and that quite tangible, quite electric youthful energy and excitement is evident in nearly every note of this fun and funky frolic of film terms and fabulous frivolity that so clearly illustrates the new Stephanie character in the film (a vastly rewritten version of the stage version's Stephanie Necrophorus character, acting as the exact inverse of each other with an ebullient celebration of his filmatic style versus a snide, bitchy criticism in the stage version‘s "The Trouble With Contini" section).
The overture has never sounded more thrilling than on this soundtrack and the vocal lines of each member of the chorus is so well-mixed and carefully arranged that I can pick out each and every one of the fabulous ladies merely by her "la la"-ing. The finale is equally a sensory sonic delight. Bigger is not always better when it comes to the choral components of this score, particularly when large choruses in concert halls are concerned, as the London recording proves repeatedly in its sonically muddled muck-and-mire of choral passages which are as much the fault of the live nature of the recording as Yap's questionable producing choices. The intricate orchestration by Doug Besterman is glittery and truly galvanizes the score making it sound better than it ever has before, even in the thrilling original orchestrations by the masterful Jonathan Tunick, in my opinion most expertly rendered on the London concert recording due to the size of the orchestra. Besterman has the opportunity to work with a much wider range of sounds and emotion here, and his work is intimate, immediate and infinitely impressive. Much may have been cut, but what remains has never sounded better. The orchestrations to the new songs are positively sublime, particularly the Ralph Burns-esque "Take it All" and the eerie evocation of Nino Rota, Fellini's go-to soundtrack composer and creator of the theme from THE GODFATHER, in "Guarda La Luna".
SLEEK WOMEN IN POSITANO
That brings us to the absolute crème de la crème, or the perfect cloud of foam on the luscious latte that is the NINE soundtrack: Marion Cotillard and Fergie's "Be Italian". The latter song has never been sung better, despite the best efforts by Kathi Moss on the Broadway cast recording and at the 1982 Tony Awards (a last minute replacement after Morris's number, clearly the crowd-pleasing showstopper above all others, was deemed inappropriate for broadcast). Cotillard gives a sensitively subdued and a fascinated and fascinating reading of "My Husband Makes Movies" sounding equally awed and saddened by her husband's professional success and the sacrifices he has made to achieve it. She noticeably relishes the lyrics comparing him to Michelangelo and these new lyrics speak better than any for Yeston‘s deep connection to the material at each character‘s heart, soul and gut and the emotions contained therein. If her fiery and ferocious "Take It All" is a whit as visually spectacular as it is sonically in this showstopper of showstoppers in this constantly-topping-itself score than we may have a new pinnacle in the ever-evolving, and always innovative and interesting, song-stack of NINE. "Take It All" is given brassy and bawdy Ralph Burns-esque orchestrations by the excellent Besterman, who bests the very best film orchestras here on the level of Jonathan Tunick's work on the film version of SWEENEY TODD.
This homage to Burns is implicitly the evocation of CHICAGO and ALL THAT JAZZ, 8 ½ being a huge influence on Fosse's film, which only adds to the multitude of meta-narratives, both dramatic and real world historic, employed by the music and lyrics of this fantastic new entry. If one performer ultimately ends up owning the soundtrack, as Paige owns the London and Akers owns the Broadway, it would be Ms. Cotillard. She is sublime, a ten and a half in a cast of solid tens.
Speaking, lastly, of the utmost sublimity: Dame Judi Dench and the great, beloved legend that is Miss Sophia Loren. Both of these recorded performances reveal the supreme care and attention paid to each and every split-second of this soundtrack recording by the producers judging from the seamless merging of dialogue and song - in my opinion never represented better on a soundtrack recording than in "Folies Bergere" or "Guarda La Luna". (Dialogue sections on soundtracks usually have a canned and tinny sound which is most outwardly apparent on the recent soundtracks for DREAMGIRLS, particularly in "It's All Over", and RENT, evident everywhere.) The production on this album is acutely accurate and always appropriate, at all times, never overdoing anything like so many other soundtracks, and though that may sound like general praise, the seamlessness and sonic graces of the soundtrack speak - and sing - for themselves at every twist of the score and turn of phrase in Yeston's deliciously biting music and lyrics. "Guarda La Luna" is positively surreal, something straight out of Fellini's most out-of-the-world works like TOBY DAMMIT or JULIET OF THE SPIRITS (itself once musicalized, but, sad to say, justified in its on-the-road-abortion). Dench is delightful, though decidedly Dench-does-Danielle-Darrieux, and the overall effect of her song and monologue is, well, divine. While "Nine and "Waltz From NINE" are always touching touch-stones in the musical on stage, their reworking and merging in "Guarda La Luna" is ultimately a better evocation of the elegiac elements of the dramatic moment the song depicts in Mama‘s ghostly apparition to Guido when he is at his breaking point. Miss Loren sings sweetly and emotes effortlessly, erasing any memories of the acrid MAN OF LA MANCHA film. How proud she must be to add this magical and momentous film soundtrack appearance to her list of illustrious credits both in the film and recording industries. Belissima.
In the liner notes to the soundtrack, Yeston refers to the work Marshall asked him to do on the film and its result as "an act of impossible grace" and, even without "The Bells of St. Sebastian", he has truly done the impossible and made an elegant and entertaining extravaganza considerably more graceful, emotional and enticing than it ever was on stage or on record. The best I can do to impart to you the joy this recording has brought me is to echo Stephanie in the bridge of "Cinema Italiano" with eight consecutive shouts for "Guido" and I‘ll throw in a one more, or at least a half of one, for that neo-realism syllogism she loves so much that has never been more pronounced than in the profound performances encrusting this crowning achievement of a soundtrack. Indeed, this recording is in equal portions, the most realistic and the most fantastical - and the most fantastic. Despite its paltry, paper-thin plot, NINE is a generously gilded showcase for female characters - and the amazing actresses that portray them, both on this soundtrack and in the star-studded cast albums discussed herein- like few other shows. This soundtrack gets better and better every single time, something I'm sure has been said to Guido Contini on a few occasions, whether on a soundstage or in more intimate quarters. The recordings of this score are quite varied, yet the entertainment value of them all from first note to last note does, indeed, go the whole nine yards. The soundtrack goes a few steps further. Give yourself over to it and you, too, can be Italian if only for an hour or two. So go on, "Be Italian... before your chance has passed."
X (10) out of 10.
More On: Rob Marshall, David Leveaux, Tommy Tune, Maury Yeston, Laura Benanti, Fifi D'Orsay.