Monday, March 19, 2012

Monday March Musical Madness: Fame 2009

In case you didn’t know, I think Alan Parker’s 1980 sorta musical Fame is a genuine great film about young artists. When I make a statement like that, I often catch an eye roll or sarcastic comment about how it’s a silly ‘80s dance movie and ancestor to High School Musical.

Then I call my lawyer to get me off yet another murder charge.

Look, I’m not comparing an epic tale of teenage performers to Schindler’s List or Starship Troopers. But I am defending its reputation, which too often gets lumped with lighter later season Glee-type bubble gum fare. Fame is not. There’s abortion, attempted suicide, failure, dream crushing, teen exploitation, illiteracy, and ultimately, no fairy tale rich and famous contracts. It paints a stark but loving portrait of what it’s like to be gifted and driven but plopped in an environment overcrowded with people that might be MORE gifted and MORE driven than you ever thought yourself capable of.

In 2009, the remake warlords released an updated Fame for the 21st century audience. Critical and audience response wasn’t kind, but the sirens of instant watch called and hence, here we go:

Quick Plot: A gaggle of dancers, musicians, and actors line up to audition for entry into the High School of Performing Arts. Like its predecessor, Fame starts with an amusing montage displaying the range of talent on the streets of New York, from one kid’s adorably awful Taxi Driver impersonation to a classic pianist’s easy mastery of a difficult piece.  Once the placard reads “Freshman Year,” we settle on our cast:

Malik, an intense aspiring actor whose hard knocks childhood has closed him off from tapping into his true potential

Joy, a peppy actress who flunks out of school because of her job on Sesame Street 

(no, really)

Alice, the rich dance star who dates bad boys but not in an exciting way

Jenny, the mousy actress who’s boring but white and therefore our apparent lead 

Denise, a secret vocal powerhouse whose strict parents want her to focus on the classical piano

Kevin, a ballet dancer from Iowa who might not be cut out for the big leagues

Neil, a filmmaker-in-training learning that the industry is full of crooks

Marco, a musician whose experimental style mildly ruffles teacher Kelsey Grammar but then never really seems to go anywhere

And a few more pretty fresh faces who I forgot about.

You might have already guessed it, but therein lies the biggest issue of Fame, a film that actually started promisingly before descending into a messy collage of pretty but bland people I just didn’t care about. The decision to approach the film as a true ensemble piece is admirable, but there are simply so many storylines going on that not a single one has the time to become any more than a one-line stereotype. This ain’t Contagion being directed by Stephen Soderbergh. It’s Fame being directed by the guy that mashed together the messy Glee 3D concert movie.

It’s a shame. While none of the kids register along the lines of Paul McCrane’s character actor star-making performance in the original, there’s still clear talent in the new cast. Collins Pennie’s Malik has something of interest behind sparse screentime, while the ridiculously long-named Anna Maria Perez de Tagle has a likable peppiness as the dropout Joy. What’s worse is that *some* of the stories have genuine potential but not a single one gets paid off.

Take for example the character of Kevin, a fresh-faced dancer whose mother runs a Midwest ballet school. Teacher Bebe Neuwirth (fine, as always) is hard on him, recognizing his talent and effort but not ignoring the fact that his solo technique won’t get him work in the competitive world of professional dance. In one of the film’s best and easily most honest scenes, Newirth denies Kevin a recommendation because she simply doesn’t believe he should pursue dancing as a career. This is really the only storyline that follows the same beats as the original film, and yet when Kevin inches toward a moving subway train, the depth and punch of attempted suicide just feels forced. This might be the best story IN Fame, but because it’s spread out in snippets and pushed aside for the dullest romance in recent teen cinema history, how are we supposed to take it seriously?

So about that dull teen romance: it stinks. For some reason, Fame seems to think that it needs to ultimately focus on a pretty white ingénue. Kay Panabaker plays Jenny as a boring young girl who starts dating a slightly less boring young man, has an uncomfortable encounter in a casting trailer that almost insults Irene Cara’s heartbreaking nude audition gone wrong, then sort of gets back together with now really boring boyfriend in time to sing (terribly) at graduation. We never actually see her give anything near a great performance that makes us think “yes, let’s see her shine!” Sure, Maureen Teefy’s Doris wasn’t the most likable onscreen presence in 1980, but she had genuine pluck and a real journey that let us see her grow from freshman to senior year. Jenny is a surface-level character who somehow steals the most screentime and in the end, the film is all the worse for it.

I could go on. I could, so I guess I just WILL.

Remember how in the original, we had a snooty ballerina in an abortion clinic after fooling around with a straight-from-the-streets bad boy? Here we have Alice, who dances well and has rich parents so she must take an interest in a minority student from the other side of Central Park. So she points him out to her parents at dinner, says he’s dangerous and she likes it, then goes offscreen for a good hour, and in the final wrapup of the characters, she breaks up with him to take a role in a water ballet show. Now I’m not saying that we NEEDED another abortion, but were we supposed to be invested in a relationship that barely gave us its lovers IN THE SAME SCENE?

Much like Glee, Fame’s cast is (for the most part) musically talented but underserved. As Denise, Naturi Naughton possesses a pretty incredible voice that does surprising justice to Cara’s Oscar-nominated Out Here On My Own. But the story insists on making her character a dull wallflower who sings modern rap with her pals while following her parents’ more traditional dream path to Carnegie Hall. This conflict is perfectly fine for the film, but it’s handled terribly. For one thing, we don’t ever really care about her partners’ stake in the group so when a big name producer tells them he’s only interested in her, are we really supposed to be sad? Especially since Denise has thus far shown no actual stage presence to be believable as the next Mariah Carey?

You get my point.

At an oddly chosen 100 minutes, Fame simply bit off more than it could chew. There are too many characters with terrible division of screentime between them. Director Kevin Tancharoen can stage a fine musical performance or montage, but he clearly doesn’t have a grasp on Allison Burnett’s wannabe epic script. This is a film that clearly came from good intentions but had absolutely no idea how to make them a reality.

High Points
As I say for the similarly flawed beyond possible repair Smash, it’s always nice to see a film embrace and exploit its NYC setting to the extreme

Michael "Brianna Barksdale” Hyatt alert! Wire fans rejoice!

Low Points
Aforementioned confusion of the film’s script and character weight. Seriously, are we aware that Panabaker’s ABC Family Channel-level romance got more attention than a suicidal dancer AND character dropping out of HIGH SCHOOL TO BE ON SESAME STREET???

Odd Point
Part of what made the original Fame such a groundbreaking film was its portrayal of a realistic gay teenager learning in his most awkward years who he was. This Fame has no acknowledged gay characters, though I think most audiences (self included) would certainly assume things here and there. On one hand, maybe it’s a positive sign that a character can just be gay in a teen film without it being an issue. On the other, are we missing a prime opportunity to explore that in a mainstream film? I dunno, I just work here.

Lessons Learned
Bach was a stubby little German guy who wore a wig and died 1000 years ago

If you want your child to graduate high school, do not even THINK of signing release forms 
for her to be employed by PBS

The theater is not a place for cowards (just narcissists)

For the first forty minutes or so of Fame, I was genuinely excited and eager to rebuff the critical sentiment that it was a dud. Then the film decided to do everything wrong. I’m fully aware that a 1980 movie about teenagers might show some signs of aging, and yet I truly believe Parker’s 32 year old film remains far more relevant to today’s youth than this oddly patched together yawn. If you NEED to watch a talented teens movie with more current slang, at least start with the earnest Center Stage (I’m not kidding!) or the giddily wonderful Step Up sequels (skip the first one, please). 2009’s Fame is a not dreadful watch for a random lazy day, but don’t tune in expecting any of the heart so rich in the original. It’s there, and that is that.


  1. The original Fame is a silly ‘80s dance movie and ancestor to High School Musical! Mwuhaha!

    What's hilarious about the remake is that for the Australian trailer, it showed interview footage of viewers, one of whom claimed that it was better than the original! haha!

  2. I just punched Australia. HOW DID IT FEEL?

  3. God how I loathed this movie, especially as it's essentially a collection of random scenes just mashed together, while none of the character are the slightest bit likeable, especially the film student who rather than going to film school shows up at an acting school!?!

    The whole movie stunk of cliche, while committing the worst crime any film / tv show can by featuring a spontaneous sing / dance off in the canteen!

    Bizarrely the director of this remake would also reboot "Mortal Kombat" with the web series "Mortal Kombat: Legacy" which was a pale imitation of his epic "Mortal Kombat: Rebirth".

  4. ...kind of like how this Fame was a pale imitation of the epic 1980 film?!

    The stereotype thing is infuriating when you think back to how the original dealt with that. Yes, the poor Jewish girl was insecure and the dad-less Latino boy was damaged and the black kid from the streets couldn't read, but we got to know the kids enough to LIKE them. Here, it's like a role call: innocent white girl, CHECK! Sassy Latina, CHECK! Snobby dancer, CHECK! BLURGH!

    And I never have a problem with spontaneous singing and dancing (it comes with the territory of being a musical fan) but it's just not done with any real enthusiasm here. Double BLURGH!

  5. Ow, I think my face has been smashed in! I think I'll have to watch Flashdance as well as Fame to heal it! haha! (and I'll hope that my house isn't invaded by killer animals, angered by your Australia-punching. Luckily my home is protected against drop-bears!)