With its dazzling trailers, full of renowned actresses and flashy dance sequences, accompanied by Fergie’s rendition of “Be Italian” and a new song written for Kate Hudson, Rob Marshall’s stage-to-screen adaptation of the musical Nine is certainly eye-catching.
Inspired by Fellini’s film 8 1/2, Nine is the story of Guido Contini, an Italian director played by Daniel Day-Lewis, and the many, many women in his life, primarily his wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard), his lover Carla (Penelope Cruz) and his muse Claudia (Nicole Kidman). Standing on the other side of forty, Contini faces failure after a long and successful career, suddenly faced with the disintegration of his latest movie and his marriage alike. Judi Dench and Sophia Loren round out the cast in this star vehicle as Contini’s mentor and mother respectively.
With only two weeks left before its Christmas day release, Nine seems full of promise. The soundtrack, recently released digitally, however, suggests otherwise.
The music itself remains as powerful as in its earlier incarnations and yet there is so much missing from the actual performances. From the first track, “Overture Delle Donne,” it comes off as somehow watered down, weak. Even as its loudest, its bawdiest, this Nine is only a shadow, seeming to miss the crucial force driving its prior incarnations.
This isn’t a show about being flashy or dazzling. It’s about small moments of truth in lives affected by and affecting one man, as Guido and the women he’s loved try to figure out just what that love is and how, indeed, to love at all — in essence, how to live. The greatness of Nine lies in its stillnesses, the way it captures moments where life is holding its breath and answers are sought within, as if in searching the soul, we can find what wasn’t there just yesterday. The essential truths of these searches vanish in this production, gilded or cast aside in favor of the apparent urge to showcase famed actresses who fail to prove themselves worthy of that spotlight.
One of the show’s greatest numbers, Luisa Contini’s eleventh hour ballad “Be On Your Own,” has been cut from the movie and replaced with the new song “Take It All.” While this new number has ostensibly the same message, it’s now buried under cheap burlesque and references to crotch-grabbing and pasties, where “Be On Your Own” was a powerhouse of fury, the last ditch attempt to retain dignity by a woman scorned and finally done with it. While Cotillard seems to give it her all, the song nevertheless comes off disingenuous at best; the anger is there, but lacks direction or reason, the source and the power alike lost in the apparent need to have Cotillard perform a striptease and call it a metaphor. While Cotillard is not without talent, it seems possible this simply isn’t the right role for her, at least vocally.
Dench and Loren hold their own, though it seems unlikely anyone will be listening to their numbers on repeat, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ voice, while certainly not as capable in the role as Antonio Banderas in his Tony-nominated revival performance a few years back, is admittedly much stronger than I was expecting. Aurally, however, he lacks the petulance that marks such a big part of who Guido is — a man who, in his forty years of life, hasn’t much grown up since he was nine.
But it’s Kidman who truly disappoints. Her performance in Moulin Rouge! proved her not without some measure of vocal talent and, indeed, her ballad from that musical, “One Day I’ll Fly Away,” suggested she just might be able to pull off the one song she was afforded on this soundtrack. And yet she lacks entirely the ability to be both quiet and powerful at once. Her rendition of “Unusual Way” is, quite simply, painful. It seems strangely without emotion, the lines nothing but her stepping carefully from one note to the next — and missing as often as not — as if the singer performed the entire number reading off a page, perhaps for only the second time. There’s no power, no kick, and to hear this song performed as something not only bland and stumbling, but off-key as well is enough to make listeners cringe.
In the end, it’s the three singers from whom I admittedly expected the least who manage to save any of the songs on this CD at all. Kate Hudson’s “Cinema Italiano” is a welcome and exuberant addition to the score, performed with zest by a woman who actually sounds like she’s having fun, making her a rarity on this album. After her exquisite turn as Penny Lane in Almost Famous, it’s a relief to see Hudson in anything that provides a respite from the cheesy rom coms that have haunted her these last few years and she does not disappoint. “Be Italian,” Fergie’s number in which the prostitute Saraghina teaches a young Guido about love and life (but not like that, get your minds out of the gutters), seems to be the new heart of the film, at least when it comes to quality of performance. And Penelope Cruz provides just the right amount of mock-innocence and sensuality in the memorable phone sex number, “A Call From the Vatican,” her voice at once sweet and downright purring.
What sets these numbers apart from the rest — aside from the demonstration of any level of actual skill — is that these three actresses appear to be, well, acting, where all the other songs fall flat.
While I will still be seeing the film, having looked forward to it too much to skip out on it now and hoping fervently that context will make up for the soundtrack’s faults, my hopes for the movie fell far in the forty-three minutes it takes to listen to this album all the way through. Too many powerful numbers have been lost to time constraints and those that remain have been watered down until they’ve lost any trace of vitality or emotion, a nigh unforgivable fault in a musical about life and the heart.