All-star cast brings big guns to 'Nine'

Seven years ago, “Chicago” became the first musical in more than three decades to win Oscar’s top prize. Now, “Chicago’s” director Rob Marshall is back with another Broadway smash-turned-Oscar hopeful: “Nine.”

“Nine,” which won the 1982 Tony for best musical, was a tooner adaptation of Federico Fellini’s “8½,” which had itself won the 1963 best foreign-language film Oscar. In it, Fellini’s semiautobiographical tale of a troubled Italian director became a musical exploration of the man’s various complex relationships with women throughout his life.

For the bigscreen “Nine,” Marshall and his co-producer (and co-choreographer), John DeLuca, have further retooled the concept, casting double Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis as the Felliniesque Italian director Guido Contini and another five Oscar winners as the women who variously love and torment him: Marion Cotillard as his wife, Penelope Cruz as his mistress, Nicole Kidman as his actress/muse, Judi Dench as his costume designer and confidante, and Sophia Loren as his mother.

Rounding out the cast (but holding their own in stellar company) are Kate Hudson as an American journalist visiting Rome, and Black Eyed Peas singer Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson as an Italian prostitute who Contini remembers from his youth.

During the 1960s, the film versions of Broadway musicals “West Side Story,” “My Fair Lady,” “The Sound of Music” and “Oliver!” all won best picture Oscars. But that was a different era, when audiences would accept characters routinely breaking into song, says film historian Roger Hickman (“Reel Music: Exploring 100 Years of Film Music”). “Audiences have become more sophisticated,” he says. “They don’t just want to be entertained, they want more reality.”

Now, adds Marshall, “You have to be careful about why people sing onscreen. If it doesn’t feel organic in some way, it just puts people off.”

Hence “Chicago” offered musical numbers out of the imagination of Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) and on the stage where Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) performs. In “Nine,” Marshall explains, “The story moves seamlessly between reality and fantasy and memory, and that gives us an entrance into that world.”

But turning “Nine” into an $85 million movie also required rethinking, courtesy of the Michael Tolkin/Anthony Minghella script and songwriter Maury Yeston’s stated belief that “You cannot have an overcontrolling Broadway author looking over your shoulder.” Yeston recalls telling Marshall, “I want you to make believe that I’m dead” to allow the team to turn “Nine” into a film that stands on its own merits.

Yeston wrote three songs for the film, including the lullaby “Guarda la Luna” for Loren (to a melody from the Broadway show), the intense “Take It All” for Cotillard (as Guido’s wife angrily walks out) and the boisterous “Cinema Italiano” for Hudson (a rhapsody on ’60s arthouse films from the likes of Fellini and Antonioni). He also took an existing song from the show, “I Can’t Make This Movie,” and extended it for a longer, more meaningful scene for Day-Lewis’ Guido character.

As he did with “Chicago,” Marshall shot the musical numbers with three or four cameras simultaneously, and, in a nod to the era, often had one of those shooting in monochrome. “There is such a glamour to black-and-white,” says Marshall. “It’s so vibrant in a different way than color is. Plus, he’s a filmmaker from the ’60s, and that’s what he’d be imagining.”

The film also benefits from the verisimilitude of shooting at Rome’s Cinecitta Stage 5, where Fellini filmed several of his works including “8½” (although for many of the interiors, they re-created the Cinecitta stages at London’s Shepperton Studios).

“With ‘Chicago,’ it was exciting to do a real satire,” says the director, hailed by Hudson as “this generation’s Bob Fosse.” “But I wanted to move into something that was more challenging, more like a psychological musical in a way. So when Daniel Day-Lewis came onboard, I knew we had someone with such gravitas that I was able to reach for something even deeper.”

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