The name Milli Vanilli is likely to evoke strong reactions from those who remember the German-French pop duo. Famous for their hits such as “Girl You Know It’s True” and “Blame It on the Rain,” they might be even more notorious for a 1989 concert. When they were performing "Girl You Know It's True," live at a Club MTV Tour stop in Bristol, Connecticut, their backing track flamed out — “girl you know it—” repeated ad nauseam. Not only were they exposed for lip-synching — it turns out they never sang a note on any of their chart-topping songs.

Now, thirty years later, their story is the center of the new documentary “Milli Vanilli”, which just premiered at Tribeca Film Festival. The film’s executive producers, Hanif Abdurraqib and Bradley Jackson, recently joined GBH’s James Bennett II to discuss the documentary.

Abdurraqib and Bradley were inspired, in part, by the VH1 Behind the Music special about the Milli Vanilli story. “I always wanted to make a music documentary, but ... I wanted one with more nuance and complexity," Jackson said. "And I feel like the Milli Vanilli story is kind of the gold standard of that, because you have everything.”

For Abdurraqib, growing up and knowing the group “largely through the lens of them being a punch line,” despite the genuine musical merit of their work, inspired him to dig more deeply into the rise and fall of the duo.

At the heart of the Milli Vanilli story, according to Jackson and Abdurraqib, was music producer Frank Farian, a failed pop musician himself who “fell in love with Black music” growing up in Germany near an American military base. Farian created Milli Vanilli by bringing Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus together in 1988 following Farian's successful — and similarly lip syncing — late 1970s-era Eurodisco group Boney M.

According to Abdurraqib, Farian “saw an opportunity to repeat a formula ... of Black artists who are aesthetically appealing, physically attractive, good dancers, marketable, with different voices laid behind the performances.” So he targeted Morvan and Pilatus, who were at the time struggling artists, with a contract promising fame and fortune.

Milli Vanilli achieved “Michael Jackson-level success” in just two years, and continued to find commercial success selling millions of records even after the Bristol, Connecticut, concert that is so often remembered as being their “undoing." In “Milli Vanilli,” the documentary team aims to correct the popular narrative surrounding the band. Jackson said that the misremembering of Milli Vanilli as notoriously and immediately undone by that concert technical mishap is likely due to that infamous VH1 special: “I don’t know why they decided to perpetuate that lie via ‘Behind the Music.’”

The film is an exercise in separating truth from memory, but also an exploration into the importance of image and its consequences. Abdurraqib said that part of the Milli Vanilli "scandal" “relies on people lying to themselves as well. ... This is a story about image in a way, but it’s not a story that’s, I think, uniquely about image. Beauty, physical beauty and a proximity to physical beauty, is still a major point of desire societally and I think people allow for that to cover all manner of misdeeds.”

These "misdeeds" feed directly into “a societal obsession with prolonged punishment,” a point accentuated in “Milli Vanilli” through footage of a press conference following the group having their Grammy rescinded in 1990. “That press conference is a really indicting example of that,” said Abdurraqib, “because essentially [Milli Vanilli] were just kind of up there to be pummeled by the press who were exercising this frustration at a so-called betrayal.”

“Milli Vanilli” streams on Paramount+ this fall.