Some people live in a world where it seems completely natural to break out into song and dance and others do not. I walk around suppressing the urge to burst into song about 80% of the time. So it makes complete sense to me, but imaginations come in all shapes and sizes. Nine manages, like a good musical, to make every song and/or dance number seem like a completely appropriate expression of the emotion being felt by the character(s). Most critics would disagree with me on this point because Nine has certainly not gone over well with majority of reviewers. As someone who has a pretty good background in musicals I feel confident in standing by my opinion that the film does stand on its own as a musical. It may not be perfect, but I also think some of the problems critics are having with the film are rooted not in the films mistakes or shortcomings but in the approach the critic is taking.
A lot of the critics are taking the “why watch Nine when 8 1/2 is so much better?” approach. First of all 8 1/2 is not a musical and when a critic focuses on how Nine compares I can’t help but wonder if the critic is a big fan of musicals in general. I’m not saying you can’t do cross-genre comparisons, but at least recognize that you are in fact comparing two different genres, and, subsequently, the comparison should have more wiggle room. By ignoring this fact the writer allows the reader to answer the question of “why watch Nine when 8 1/2 is so much better?” with “well because it’s a musical remake…duh.” The problem here is in the approach because you set yourself up for something that isn’t possible (a better version of a Fellini film).
One of the major complaints I’m hearing (or reading rather) is that the movie is confusing and the women and their song-a-piece just add to that confusion. I had the absolute opposite reaction. For me, the songs and the women who sang them helped me understand Guido and his creative struggle. But here’s the rub I actually wanted to understand Guido. What seems to be happening is that people watch the film and are automatically put off by the, as some have described him, narcissistic, self-centered, womanizing Guido, and, therefore, lose the desire to figure him out. Having a preconceived idea of Guido from 8 1/2 could be a partial cause of this. Subsequently, in the scenes where the women, or Guido himself, start singing people don’t see it as a deeper expression of emotion but as a random and inappropriate medium of character development.
You have to understand the nature of musicals to understand the problem here. The song/dance numbers in a musical are supposed to take you beyond conventional dialogue and plot to help you further understand the characters and themes. So, if you have given up on trying to understand the character because you don’t like him, then no you’re not ready for the song/dance number. That’s not really the director’s fault though. Nor is it the fault of Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Guido. These are all set up well, but it’s up to the viewer to accept Guido as the manipulative, self-centered, child-like, genius in humanity.
It’s also easy to believe that someone like Guido would imagine the women in his life to be performers. With a musical there is an aspect of being larger than life that the characters (at least the main character) must possess, and Guido carries that off. His wife Louisa describes him as just an “appetite” which speaks volumes, and in “Guido’s Song” we see that Guido wants everything and wants to be the sun of the universe. Louisa angrily sings later in the film that Guido wants “more than everything.” He’s a genius filmmaker who is unable to create his next movie and he’s drained all of the women around him. This is seen best in “My Husband Makes Movies” which Cotillard sings gracefully and reminded me of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. Louisa sings and talks about how Guido makes literal movies but also lives his life like it is a film he is directing, so the musical numbers make complete sense for someone like him who is so dramatic in his living, not necessarily his personality. Some people’s story require song–Guido is one of them.
We all have Guido within us, but that’s hard to admit. I sympathize with Guido because by being an “appetite” he is able to love all of these women differently, but he hasn’t learned how to not love them selfishly nor has he learned how to create without destroying pieces of them. But one is never unsure of the fact that he is in love with all of them. I could understand this antipathy towards his character if there wasn’t any resolution in the end, but there is. He does begin to learn by the end of the film when his mother tells him that he cannot look for anyone to help him create his movie but himself. His mother, played beautifully but also briefly by Sophia Loren, is dead; therefore, it is Guido realizing that he must rely on himself. Guido learns that he must find a healthy balance between his creativity/genius and his own life while still appreciating and loving the women around him who all come back to support him in the end. I think if the viewer is more open to and less condemning of Guido the whole film will seem much more natural and less confusing. Because if you listen the songs guide you through the movie beautifully.
That leads me to the next major issue critics are having, which is that the music isn’t that great and neither are the singers. I’d like to make a small side-note here and remind the many people excessively comparing this movie to Chicago that, in terms of musical performance, that movie was no better. I love the film, but Renee Zellwegger is a mediocre singer, and to anyone with an even slightly trained ear Richard Gere’s “Razzle Dazzle’m” performance is practically unbearable. In Nine the music is a good balance between over-the-top and subdued, and again if you get musicals and their purpose you know that not every song should be a huge number. The musical numbers range from big theatrical acts like Fergie’s major “Be Italian” number to a softer yet equally beautiful number like Cotillard’s “My Husband Makes Movies.” It’s important to note the range of style used because this range gives the movie a smoothness that balances out the more frenetic actions and emotions of Guido. If all of the numbers were big like “Be Italian” or “Folies Bergere” the audience would feel overwhelmed and confused. One has to listen to some of the songs a little more to fully extract their beauty as opposed to just being blown away by all of them.
Every singer, while there are some better than others, either has the voice to carry the song or (like Judi Dench) manages to make the song so interesting it doesn’t matter that she’s not the best singer. If I speak about performance at all, I have to mention Marion Cotillard’s incredibly graceful and under-stated portrayal of Louisa. Her songs in particular showcase the power of a musical by adding voice when dialogue alone fails. The song “Unusual Way” performed by Nicole Kidman does this as well and is about the very unconventional relationship between Claudia (the muse) and Guido (the artist). She sings about very conflicting and nuanced emotions that are easily missed by someone anticipating a different version of a “Be Italian” performance. And she sings what they can’t talk about, which is one of my favorite techniques in a musical. All of the numbers do this really, but these songs are just exceptionally powerful because of the contrast between dialogue and music. The music should and does not only hypnotically dazzle and entertain but also quietly woos and guides the audience.
There’s also been some whining about how the film is about Italians but not played by Italians. Is this a mistake? Yes. Is it unforgivable? Hardly—3 words: West Side Story. People have yet to discredit that film based on the fact that Rita Moreno is the only actual Latina in the whole film
The only major gripe I have with the film, that seems to have been largely ignored by most, is its tendency to overstate itself. One moment specifically is a few scenes after Guido invokes his Muse (Claudia) which is all done in silence with a chorus of women singing “la la las” in the background, he then goes on to sort of recap what happened for the audience, which I hate. He says something like “a woman enters a room and kisses him–his muse…”–I wanted to remove that line completely. I blame the writers for these instances of over-statement and maybe it’s just Minghella’s style because he does have the characters vocalize what the audience should be subtly picking up on in his other movies like Cold Mountain and probably less so in The Talented Mr. Ripley. It’s as if he doesn’t trust the director/actors/ and (in this case) songs to get the point across to the audience so he has to actually put it down in words. It’s like when you eat an amazing dessert and you think “this is so good but it’s just a little too sweet” then you wonder “is there such a thing?” Yes there is! You can over season food just like you can over-state a theme in writing. The movie just needs to rely on the viewer’s trained palate a little more—but I would give that same criticism to a lot of movies. So I’m not picking on Minghella or Nine.
The film reminded me of so much of what I love about musicals. They’re generally considered a fairly fun genre, especially in the past couple of years with movies like Mamma Mia, Hairspray, and that which shall not be named (High School Musical 3). I think to fully enjoy Nine you have to remind yourself that there are different types of musicals to fit different characters. If a character is more introverted and tortured then to a certain degree some of the music will be as well. And I’m not saying Nine isn’t fun–it is! It’s dirty and seductive in the best possible way and can be likened to a good martini–it burns so smooth. The “fun” movies do good and bad things to the genre, and I love a big, loud, bordering on cheesy musical any day, but Nine and musicals like it (I’m thinking Cabaret specifically) remind the viewer that music is not only the natural expression of happiness and fun, but it is the natural expression of “more than everything.”