Maybe I’m just old-fashioned but I believe that a musical needs, above all else, good music. Direction, performances, production design, and choreography (if applicable) are all important, but a musical lives and dies with its songs. Nine dies and it’s a long, excruciating death as we follow mopish director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) suffering from writer’s block and depending on all the women in his life while providing nothing in return. Eventually, “Nine” no longer represents Frederico Fellini’s “8 ½ plus music”, but a countdown to how many forgettable numbers you’ll have to endure before the movie ends.
Director Rob Marshall (with the help of Bill Condon’s outstanding script) made Chicago one of the best films of 2002. The songs were memorable, the tone was sharp, the performances were strong, the script made a welcome criticism of the criminal celebrity, and Marshall managed to turn almost every musical number into a showstopper. Because John Kander had created such fantastic songs, it was up to Marshall to meet the challenge of unlocking the creative potential of each one. Nine works the opposite way with Marshall trying to use his visual flair as a distraction from the terrible music. The only time he has a Chicago-moment is with the film’s only good number, “Be Italian”. It’s Nine‘s only showstopper and as the film drags on you wish it actually had stopped the show. Instead, Nine is a slog where you find yourself thinking, “Okay, so which actresses haven’t had their musical number yet…”
Without good music, the entire production falls apart. Marshall does what he can visually but because the film is character-driven instead of plot-driven, he’s confined to the unfinished stage being built for Guido’s unwritten script. The film’s idea is obvious: Guido’s can’t sustain his creativity by living such an immature and selfish existence. But Guido’s journey from his wife (Marion Cotillard) to his mistress (Penelope Cruz, who has a forgettable song but an unbelievably sexy number) to his costume designer/confidant (Judi Dench) to his lead actress/muse (Nicole Kidman) to an adoring American journalist (Kate Hudson) to his deceased mother (Sophia Loren) to the whore from his youth (Fergie) is pointless because Guido learns nothing from what any of these women are trying to teach him. It’s a testament to Day-Lewis’ ability that he’s able to remain captivating while playing such a listless and static character.
The tragedy of Nine is that everything great about the film is built up around nothing. Strong performances, thoughtful production design, and impressive (albeit minimal) choreography don’t amount to anything if your musical doesn’t have songs worth singing.
Rating —– C-