Nine is a musical for people who like movies, and a movie for people who like musicals.
It renders a popular stage musical, based off of Frederico Fellini’s film 8 1/2, in cinematic form that pays homage to both the stage version, and Fellini’s film legacy.
I harbor a healthy respect for Fellini’s work, but no great love. I get the crux of his films: that the jet-set, high-class society life is full of pleasure, but empty of meaning. Both 8 1/2 and, perhaps his most well known film, La Dolce Vita, embody this both in content and form. I appreciate that, but it doesn’t make me excited to sit down and watch the movie.
The musical genre is revamped every five or so years, and thanks to Sondheim (and others), took a more serious tone in the 1970s. After the success of films like Dreamgirls and Chicago, critical buzz asked if the “musical was back.” For some it had never really gone away. Despite Into the Woods and Sweeny Todd, musical still carries the connotation of being upbeat, simple, and relatively unsophisticated. There are many examples (The Pajama Game, Annie Get Your Gun, etc.) that uphold this idea. And, as I’ve mentioned, there are a lot of musicals that are more sophisticated than they may seem.
The idea that the story contains periodic scenes in which people dance and sing still engages the audience at the entertainment level, whether upbeat or not, meaning that musicals are in general, spectacle.
So, when spectacle meets Neo-Realism and cinematic themes of disenchantment, what do you get? You get Nine.
Nine sets out to do what 8 1/2 expressed. The famous late work of Fellini’s centers around the idea of a director, Gudio (an obvious replacement for Fellini himself) making his ninth’s film. 8 1/2 is essentially a movie about a man trying to make a movie–the movie you are watching. Hence, because the audience is experiencing the film as it is being made, they are not seeing the “finished version,” the ninth film. They’re seeing something after the eighth film, that is not quite complete.
The stage play Nine was started by Maury Yeston (who wrote the music and lyrics) in the 1970s. Rob Marshall helmed the film version, and took many cues from Fellini himself. The characters grew out of the casting. The direction of the film was determined in the making of it. Marshall’s experience doing live theater and film is well known, and Nine may be the finest example of knowing how each medium works, and using those strengths to serve a story. Nine is a finished story. It goes beyond “seeing it as we make it” to be a polished, finished work of art. The scenes, especially the musical numbers (each of which is worth watching. Who knew Kate Hudson could sing? Marion Cotillard may be one of the most powerful working actresses in the world. Judy Dench and a feather boa, need I say more?) look as if they are on stage. Because they are. They’re on a sound stage, and are in Guido (Daniel Day Lewis)’s memory or imagination. The stage is a medium for dialog and action. The screen is a medium for psychology and image. Marshall uses both in masterful ways.
Dance numbers and a final tableau take place on a sound stage. The women, in their songs, often address either a pictured audience or the camera itself (with the idea that Guido is behind the camera). There are countless opportunities to dissect editing, shot, sequence, and symbol. Added to these are musical numbers, performances, and characters that are engaging, and do entertain. It is the meeting of spectacle and cinematic sophistication.