Dave and I watched Nine a couple nights ago on DVD. We’d seen it when it first came out in the theaters and it was something of a disappointment to me, because I like the musical a lot and I thought that, while a lot of things in the movie were terrific, there were also a lot that seemed clunky. There were a lot of changes I couldn’t figure out the reason for, and while God knows I’m not going to be the one to object to taking liberties with a work you’re adapting, it didn’t seem like the changes were as good as what was being left out, which is a problem.
I’m also all too aware, though, that I come to the movie with all sorts of preconceptions based on my knowledge of the stage musical, and it’s easy not to see what’s really up there on the screen when I’m comparing against my memories.
I liked the movie better the second time, though I still don’t think it works all the way through. What seems to me to be the biggest problem is that the makers of the movie want to tell a somewhat different story than the stage musical does, in which the central character has a somewhat different struggle. This oversimplifies things but it seems to me that, in a nutshell, Guido’s problems in the stage musical come from his wanting everything indiscriminately, and not being able to make choices and decide what’s most important to him, and let go of the lesser things in order to hold on to the important ones; whereas the story in the movie seems to be trying to tell the story of Guido as an artist who has so mixed up his own identity with his fame and success, and is so frightened of losing it, that he’s gotten stuck trying to recreate his earlier successes and is afraid to take chances, afraid to be authentic and spontaneous not just in his art but in his personal life.
This is, in my opinion, an absolutely terrific and completely valid take on the story and the character. In some ways it’s a better, sharper approach to the story and character than the stage musical takes. The moviemakers dropped a lot of terrific songs from the stage musical, and added a few new ones, and I think that’s appropriate; but it would have been even better if they’d dropped more and added more new ones. The problem is that in too many cases the points that the songs are making are not central to the story any more, they’re just diversions, and the points that are central to the story — as it is now being told in this movie — are made in the dialogue instead.
That puts all the weight in the wrong places. In a musical, the songs seize all the attention, all the focus, all the emphasis. They can’t help but do that. So you want to make use of the songs to emphasize whatever it is that is most important for the audience to notice and understand and concentrate on in order to follow the story and be caught up by it and moved by it.
Many times while watching Nine I found myself thinking, why did they keep this song from the stage musical when it no longer has an important function in the story as it’s being told here? “Guido’s Song” for example is shoehorned into a new situation, the character’s inner thoughts at a bullshit press conference, and while the situation really does cry out for a song for Guido at this point, and while “Guido’s Song” is a brilliant piece of character drawing, it’s drawing a different character from a different story, not the Guido we need to understand here, as this movie is telling this story.
Similarly, the thread of the story in the stage version that gives the “Folies Bergère” number its reason for being has been entirely scrapped. In the stage version, this number presents a hilariously inappropriate suggestion (that Guido should make a movie musical) from a producer who is entirely unsympathetic to Guido’s work, but because Guido has signed a contract, he has to find a way to deal with it — how he tries to do this is an important thread in the stage version. In the movie, though, this song doesn’t come from the producer (and in any case the character of the producer is completely changed); the song is presented as a sympathetic suggestion from Guido’s costume designer, who is a good friend, and it’s framed so that the suggestion is not that he should make a musical specifically, but that he should more generally include more simple entertainment in his movies. It’s turned into a really fabulous musical number on the screen, too, and yet in its attractive new context it’s really just a big red herring. This long, wonderful, compelling musical number inevitably focuses our attention on the question of whether this advice would in fact give Guido a way out of his problems, and it leads us to expect that the story ahead of us is going to turn on this issue in some way. But as it happens, this is a false expectation; the problems that arise to torment Guido as the story develops are not connected with this issue at all, if we try to understand them as being connected with this issue we will end up bewildered, and in fact neither the costume designer nor anybody else ever brings this particular issue up again.
So why go to so much trouble to focus our attention on a side issue? It’s like taking highlighter pens and using them to highlight the digressions on the page rather than the main points. Even if the colors are beautiful, the highlighting makes it harder, not easier, for a reader to get focused on what’s really important.
I also found myself several times listening to a few lines of dialogue and thinking, There! That’s the main point of this scene, right there! Why isn’t this what the song in this scene is about?
So, as much as I love the stage version, and as little of the score as they kept, I found myself thinking by the end of the movie the second time around that they should have kept even less, and written a lot more new songs tailored to this new story about Guido that they wanted to tell.