The musical is a dying breed. Forget the frivolous, lightweight pretenders High School Musical, Hairspray and even the soppy Dreamgirls. We’re talking about real musical bravura here, rock-solid gravitas and razzle-dazzle performances that could make our jaws drop, worthy successors of either Cabaret or Oliver!. Musical productions as grandiose and resplendent as any Gene Kelly picture or a Barbra Streisand vehicle or a Baz Lhurmann bonanza. So in attempt to perhaps resurrect the bygone age of golden musicals, the interplanetary system of Hollywood deliberately gathers an ensemble of stars with the hope to deliver some lost gravitas in the mainstream musical genre. And there is not quite an ensemble you’ll ever see, as Rob Marshall, the purported Bob Fosse of this living, breathing generation, cherry-picks a sizzling hot lineup of Oscar-laden actors. Nine, a screen adaptation of the Broadway musical, which in turn is based on Frederico Fellini’s masterpiece 8 ½, has a dream cast that could make a casting agent go radio ga ga.
It has Daniel Day-Lewis gurgling out notes as the anguished, existentialist Italian filmmaker Guido Contini, playing along with the female star-power panoply of Dame Judi Dench as his costume-designer-cum-confidante, Marion Cotillard his beautiful, neglected wife, Penelope Cruz his raunchy mistress, Nicole Kidman his shimmering muse, Kate Hudson his Vogue journalist fling, Fergie (of Black Eyed Peas) the local hooker of his childhood days, and Sophia Loren as his ghostly Mama. The array is formidable and surely there is enough acclaim and Oscar golden trophies between these cast that could very well sink an entire ship.
It’s all very promising, only until the film itself. What seems to be a guaranteed extravaganza in supernova proportions ends up as a curiously flat and hollow affair. Despite of its gorgeous art direction and cinematography, which often shifts from black-and-white reels of Guido’s childhood to the lovingly burnished 60’s Italia, the intentional thematic weight of Nine feels somehow lost in translation, making Day-Lewis’ Guido more of a surly, self-possessed, confused man-child eternally sucking up cigarettes rather than a middle-aged man beset with mid-life angst, sexual provocation, existentialism and artistic impediment. This is a Guido far detached from reality, and to an extent, detached from Fellini’s Guido, despite of Day-Lewis’ best attempt.
The ladies, meanwhile, deliver nuance with varying degrees, ranging from spectacular to playful and then just plain awful. Marion Cotillard is easily the best thing about Nine, playing the overlooked wife with poignancy and redemptive strength. Like Anouk Aimee in 8 ½, Cotillard steals the entire show, underplaying all throughout and then subsequently pulling the rug from everyone’s feet, as her Luisa beautifully evokes inner marital pain, with her two big numbers “My Husband Makes Movies” and the Cabaret-esque showstopper “Take It All”. Dench, with her usual deadpan wit, plays a good sidekick to Guido and pulling off a wonderful, if reverential, musical piece “Folies Bergeres”, and Penelop Cruz is scintillating with her steamy, lingerie-clad “Call From the Vatican”. Fergie delivers the most vocally powerful number of them all, the stomper “Be Italian”. However, the rest are underused: Nicole Kidman and Kate Hudson, with the quietly luminous “Unusual Way” and the sparkling go-go girl number “Cinema Italiano” respectively, are no more than pretty decorations, and Sophia Loren is criminally utilised here like some face of a lost relic.
What promises to be a bombastic musical with a shamanic alignment of megawatt star-power ends up with barely a bang. Rob Marshall’s Nine, despite of its lavish, slick production, gorgeous cinematography and art direction that oozes with 60’s retro chic, is a film of misfired ambitions. Far from Fellini’s original 8½, this is a mediocre, passable, if not entertaining, affair.