Music the best part of the uneven "Nine"
Fergie and Dame Judi Dench in the same movie. That could easily sum up the movie version of the renowned Broadway musical Nine, which is itself based on Fellini’s autobiographical film 8 ½, which could’ve used more surprises. Directed with panache from Chicago director Rob Marshall, this uneven film lacks that film’s spontaneity and smoothness, but the music carries the film and is well-performed by an all-star cast of usually non-singing actors, even if the numbers themselves are very mechanically staged.
Nine tells the story of Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis), a world famous film director as he confronts an epic mid-life crisis with both creative and personal problems. He must balance the many women of his life, including his wife (Marion Cotillard), his mistress (Penelope Cruz), his famous movie star muse (Nicole Kidman), his confidant and costume designer (Judi Dench), an American fashion journalist (Kate Hudson), a prostitute from his youth (Fergie) and his mother (Sophia Loren).
Nine is a colorfully-produced musical, ably handled by its award-winning cast. The thin, leisurely story weakens the film some, but those energetic, polished musical numbers are easily the highlight of the film. Marshall directs these dazzling set pieces with a heavy hand; they’re well-executed but also so rigid and mechanical it’s obvious the heavy amounts of rehearsal that went into them (and if you stay over for the credits, you’ll see the actors rehearsing them).
Most of Nine’s cast is up to Marshall’s perfectionist work ethic, and they all perform remarkably well in light of the fact that most have minimal singing experience. The one exception to this would be the aforementioned Fergie of the pop group Black Eyed Peas, who performs the song Be Italian with surprising force even for her early on the in the film. Dench is also quite a peach, giving the film importance by her mere presence, and her fun song Folies Bergere is one of the film’s highlights. Cotillard, Kidman and Cruz all have pleasant voices; Cruz in particular is wildly sexy, Cotillard the earthy ingénue while the beguiling Kidman’s part is surprisingly small (and no wonder that Catherine Zeta-Jones, who was to originally play the part, dropped out because Marshall wouldn’t expand the role).
Yet it’s a non-Oscar winner, non-singer who has Nine’s most memorable song. Kate Hudson, in a featured part as a fashion-magazine writer, performs the 60’s pop- flavored Cinema Italiano, one of the three songs written specifically for the film by original Nine Broadway composer Maury Yeston. Hudson performs with such a burst of vigor that it jumps off screen past than some of the other slower musical numbers, and a reprise is played over the credits.
That’s not to say Nine is perfectly cast. Daniel Day-Lewis is serviceable but miscast as the creatively- challenged Italian director; his singing voice is passably thin and the British actor seems to be working mighty hard at keeping his Italian accent. And while it’s wonderful to see the lovely Sophia Loren (still ravishing at age 75), her singing voice is a little craggy. Yeston wrote the lullaby Look at the Moon just for her, though it’s very short, a wise move considering she has trouble carrying the tune.
Nine’s story isn’t near as emotionally engaging as the movie and one of the story arc’s in particular, one involving Guido and his wife, falters in an attempt to establish a poignant connection. Nine wants to draw some powerful statements on Guido’s life and the importance of being loose and free, when in fact its script (co-authored by the late Anthony Minghella) could’ve used more of that – Fergie and Dame Judi don’t even have a musical number together – which would’ve been great fun. The handsome production elements more than make up for the story flaws, with the first-rate sets and costumes evoking 1960’s Italian cinema.
Most importantly, the lovely, exuberant cast performs the music well, really the best reason to see Nine, which often plays out with the depth of a musical Calvin Klein ad, where you most remember all the exciting visuals but little else.