Girl You Know It’s True – A spectacular true story of the biggest scandal in music history

Milli Vanilli were a pop duo who achieved world fame with Frank Farian productions from 1988 until 1990. They were Robert Pilatus, born in Munich in 1964, and Fabrice Morvan, born in Paris in 1966. After they initially became noticed as dancers in Munich clubs, they made their breakthrough in the autumn of 1988 with the song “Girl You Know It’s True”. It was a cover version of a song by an unknown band from Baltimore, Numarx. Both on stage and in the videos, Robert Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan simply move their lips to the singing of Brad Howell, John Davis and Charles Shaw, with whom Frank Farian had previously recorded the song in his studio in Rosbach. Farian himself also did some singing, as he had previously with his big hits with Boney M.

Born in Munich in 1972 and growing up there, Verhoeven frequented places in the 80s in which the meteoric career of Robert Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan, better known as Milli Vanilli, began. “When I was 16 I saw Robert Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan dancing at P1.” There are even more connections: “My girlfriend at the time knew Rob and Fab pretty well. She sometimes appeared with them at their shows as a dancer. I even got a bit jealous sometimes. No wonder: these guys were incredible, every girl’s dream, and I was just a teenager.”

Verhoeven also remembers some early doubts: “I knew the song ‘Girl You Know It’s True’ before Frank Farian covered it for Milli Vanilli. The Numarx original was on a mix tape that was doing the rounds with Munich disc jockeys and I also listened to the song on my Walkman. So you can imagine my surprise when two boys I had seen as dancers in the club had suddenly become superstars in America with this

Simon Verhoeven suspected that this explosive combination might lead to problems at some stage. “But I couldn’t imagine that it would turn into the biggest scandal in music history and that this twist would end so tragically, especially for Robert Pilatus. That really concerned me and hurt me at the time, because he was a Munich boy who had succumbed to the temptations of show business and died in the intoxication of fame and drugs. It’s an incredibly powerful and fascinating story, and I’m very happy and grateful that Quirin Berg asked me many years ago if I could imagine making a film about Milli Vanilli.

“Milli Vanilli made millions of people all over the world their fans. They were a phenomenon. But even those who weren’t fans at the time couldn’t deny the fascination. Of course there is a generation today who don’t know Milli Vanilli. But whether or not you know them or liked the music at the time is not crucial to the film. When you see the film you will feel and understand this fascination immediately”,
says producer Quirin Berg.

“The songs are timeless and you can’t get them out of your head. Unlike many great music films, Girl You Know It’s True also delivers a spectacular and true story that has more unique moments to offer than you can imagine. It’s great fun to immerse yourself in this era, to get pulled in, to experience this rise. It’s as exciting, entertaining, tragic and emotional as you could possibly wish for in a movie – no matter whether you’re 20 or 60.”

Rob (Tijan Njie) and Fab (Elan Ben Ali) in Girl You Know It’s True. Copyright: LEONINE Studios/Wiedemann & Berg Film/Gordon Timpen 

In the film Girl You Know It’s True, hit producer Frank Farian (Matthias Schweighöfer) takes on unknown dancers Rob Pilatus (Tijan Njie) and Fab Morvan (Elan Ben Ali) for his next music project. A meteoric rise ensues that exceeds all bounds. The two friends Rob and Fab conquer the international charts under the name of Milli Vanilli, have three Number One hits in the US and enjoy a life of excess in Hollywood. There is only a small circle of insiders who know their secret: the duo don’t sing themselves at all – they merely move their lips to the voices of the real singers. At the height of their fame, when Milli Vanilli win a Grammy and tour America, the truth finally comes to light. While the mighty apparatus that has been pulling the duo’s strings quickly washes its hands of the affair, Rob and Fab find themselves in the middle of the biggest scandal in music history…

Producers Quirin Berg and Max Wiedemann, who have already worked with director Simon Verhoeven to put hit films onto the big screen such as Men In The City (2009), Welcome To Germany (2016) and Nightlife (2019), recognized the potential in the rapid rise and even more rapid fall of Milli Vanilli at a very early stage: “There are not many stories that begin in Munich and end in Hollywood”, says Quirin Berg.

Simon Verhoeven was up for the task of writing the screenplay immediately, but he was afraid that the great anticipation of all those involved would suffer a drawback: “We could only make this film if we got the rights to the worldwide hits of Frank Farian, Numarx and other musicians”, says Verhoeven. “

Simon Verhoeven praises the persistence and consistency with which Quirin Berg fought for the rights for more than three years: “It was one hell of an achievement to pave the way for this project. Because it wasn’t just about Frank Farian’s songs: the personality rights of many of the persons involved and also the music rights of Numarx, Diane Warren and other songwriters also had to be obtained. We wouldn’t have been able to make the film without their hits.”

Before Simon Verhoeven wrote the first lines of the screenplay, he and Quirin Berg had invested almost two years in the research and spoken with many contemporary witnesses. “It was important for us to gain the trust of all those people who were necessary in order for us to be able to look at the events of the time from all angles. Because the story only appeared to be very straightforward at first glance. The rise
and fall of Milli Vanilli, orchestrated by Frank Farian, was much more complex.”

Producer Kirstin Winkler adds: “It was a question of respect that every contemporary witness should feel a part of and feel portrayed honestly in the film. The cooperation went very well and was informative, but sometimes it was also challenging because each witness has different memories and sets different priorities.”

Sensitivity was of particular importance in the case of Milli Vanilli: “It’s the story of two black artists that
were exploited by a white music system”, Kirstin Winkler stresses. “They let themselves in on this lie in full knowledge of the facts, for sure, but when the lie was uncovered it was Robert Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan who had to bear the heavy burden of the scandal all on their own. For this reason it was very important to tell the story with the appropriate sensitivity.”

When Fabrice Morvan finally saw the finished film, he decided he wanted to come on board officially since he was able to find his own story in there. It is an absolute honor for Simon Verhoeven that Fabrice feels the film to be good and truthful.

“All the work we had all done was worth doing for this alone”, he says. Producer Quirin Berg adds: “It was a moment of huge suspense for us when Simon showed Fabrice the film for the first time after all this time. And this moment was, of course, even more challenging for Fabrice himself – after all, this was his life, his memory. We were all incredibly relieved that he and his wife liked the film so much.”

When writing the screenplay, Simon Verhoeven decided that Rob and Fab should tell their own story themselves. “My role models were films like I, Tonya, The Big Short and The Nasty Girl, the film by my father, Michael Verhoeven, whose narrative technique shaped me a lot when I was young. It was important to me that Rob and Fab should control the narrative of the story and be able to look back and
reflect. In this way I wanted to give them more power than they had at the time.”

Simon Verhoeven opening up the fourth wall meant that Robert Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan could now address the audience directly and tell their own story subjectively.

“This brilliant idea makes it possible for us not to have to provide any final truths”, says Quirin Berg.

“Sometimes Rob and Fab also argue in front of the camera or ask the audience questions. And that makes Girl You Know It’s True a very special film.”

Co-producer Stefan Gärtner of Seven Pictures Film sees it this way too: “When you’re making a biographical film about musicians there’s always a danger of ending up with just a two-hour video medley. So an original narrative approach is important, and Simon Verhoeven has found such an approach.”

Rob (Tijan Njie) (Frank FGarian (Matthias Schweighöfer), Fab (Elan Ben Ali). Copyright: LEONINE Studios/Wiedemann & Berg Film/Gordon Timpen 

Every good film needs its heroes. And for Simon Verhoeven in the case of Girl You Know It’s True those heroes are clearly Robert Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan: “We go through thick and thin with them, even through phases where they don’t exactly behave like angels. I have no interest in portraying them as different from what they were. The boys knew how to party and succumbed to the temptations of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. They were definitely not saints.”

The story of Milli Vanilli may hardly have differed from the success stories of many other bands if their worldwide success had not been based on a lie – the lie that the two perfect dancers were also perfect
singers. “Robert and Fabrice wandered into a trap that was not even set by one person but by the linking of a whole series of coincidences. Our film contributes to us being able to experience and understand these individual steps with them. This is why Robert and Fabrice are the heroes for me, but this doesn’t mean that all the others are the antagonists.”

Co-producer Stefan Gärtner of Seven Pictures Film adds: “The universal core of this story is that we all make decisions at certain points in our lives whose significance we are not initially able to estimate. If you are unlucky, everything will fall apart around you at a later date. Each of us would probably have signed the contract with Frank Farian at the time. And nobody, not even Frank Farian, would have been able to predict the incredible consequences of this contract in that moment. It was almost a Faustian pact.”

Verhoeven describes his film as highly emotional, funny and suspenseful at the same time: “You root for these underdogs who come from nothing and become absolute superstars because they pretend they can sing. They move to Los Angeles, enjoy the wonderful life of the rich and beautiful, but suffer from the fact they are betraying their fans and the whole world. The closer the inevitable fall comes, the more
audiences will root for them. Girl You Know It’s True is an emotional rollercoaster with a lot of hair-raising, crazy scenes. But for me personally it is above all a moving story about Rob’s and Fab’s friendship and how they tried, in this hard world of show business into which they are thrown completely unprepared, to stick it out as friends. I also think the themes of this story are more relevant today than ever. We are living in a time in which systemic questions of power are being asked that were not asked at the time. And today everything is more about fame than it has ever been before. The whole world of reality TV, Instagram and TikTok is often based on fakeness, image, show and little lies, which are now fully accepted. Today, it would seem, the whole world has become a bit Milli Vanilli…”

Rob (Tijan Njie) and Fab (Elan Ben Ali) in Girl You Know It’s True. Copyright: LEONINE Studios/Wiedemann & Berg Film/Gordon Timpen 

Simon Verhoeven was born in Munich in 1972. He came into contact with the world of theater and film at a very early age. When he was 13 he wrote his first play, which was performed by the school theater at his high school, and also wrote the score to it. After finishing school he gained experience as a set runner and video operator before registering at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in New York to study Acting. He left the program after seven months to start a directing and screenplay course at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University (NYU). After completing his course, Simon Verhoeven deepened his music studies at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he concentrated on composing film music.
In 2001 Verhoeven debuted as director and screenwriter in the coming-of-age comedy 100 PRO. His big breakthrough came in 2009 with the movie comedy MEN IN THE CITY. Cinemagoers and critics loved the film in equal measure and it received numerous awards, such as the Jupiter Award for Best Film and a
Bavarian Film Award in the Best Screenplay category. Remakes of MEN IN THE CITY were filmed in several
countries, while Simon Verhoeven was working on the sequel, MEN IN THE CITY 2 (2011), once again as director, writer and composer.
In 2015 Verhoeven opened himself up to a completely different genre with UNFRIEND, a horror thriller set in the cyber world with an international cast. His next film, the political satire WELCOME TO GERMANY, centers on the refugee crisis and became the biggest film in German cinemas in 2016. NIGHTLIFE was released in 2020.