Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer may think the mis-invention of its 1980 classic will appeal to the younger hip hop tastes of today’s youth — all those not-yet-borns when the original “Fame” became a cultural sensation (including both film and soundtrack, then as both dramatic and reality television series and Off-Broadway musical, the latter with many worldwide tours and revivals).
Those of you, like myself, who enjoyed the original (which you can rent for a few bucks on iTunes) will be saddened by this flat impersonation of a hit. The story of talented students in a top echelon performing arts high school devoted to the disciplines of dance, acting, and music showcases some very special and exciting talent. Yet the production short sheets the original’s superlative writing, direction, earthy production design (Where are those New York hot dogs when you need them?), better developed back-stories, and sense of humor. Exchanging the rock/disco beat for today’s MTV and High School Musical sensibilities is no guarantee that the film will find a new audience. The 2009 edition is a lemon that youngsters will probably avoid; the earlier Rolls Royce model appealed to both young and old. You can’t just take the name of a successful predecessor, without building a better cinematic mousetrap, and expect the world to show up at your doorstep. In this case, it’s an unfortunate road to failure.
MGM, which is on shaky financial ground, will be disappointed if they expected stellar box office results with this modernization, even with the update’s modest budget of around $18 million. Most of the characters in the revision are adapted from the original, and it’s fairly easy to match the original character (i.e. the self-absorbed Michael) with their newer counterparts (i.e., the self-absorbed Andy), although others get casual reassignments (race/sex/sexual persuasion, etc.). The teachers are now somewhat famously recognizable, peppered with the able Charles S. Dutton (acting instructor), Bebe Neuwirth (dance), Meghan Mullally (voice), and Kelsey Grammer (music), who appear in roles previously played by better character actors (including Ben Stiller’s mom Anne Meara). Debbie Allen, who has ridden the “Fame” bandwagon since the 1980 film, is “promoted” to a semi-cameo role as the school’s principal. She’s now called Angela Simms, but even Allen said, “As far as I’m concerned, she is Lydia Grant (her 1980 character’s name) who got married and became Ms. Simms.”
The new script by Allison Burnett follows the original’s linear format (“The Audition,” “Freshman Year,” “Junior Year,” and “Senior Year”), but as the new film clocks in 30 minutes shorter than the first edition, “Sophomore Year” is completely discarded. Maybe I blinked at the screening and missed the 3rd year subtitle, but if it was actually M.I.A. no doubt when the DVD is released with new footage I expect the marketing people to push “NOW with the Sophomore Year!” Please don’t unleash a “director’s cut”!
A problem I had with the first film’s screenplay by Christopher Gore was the lack of interaction among the other classes in the New York Performing Arts High School, other than as bodies passing in the hall. Yes, it’s a minor issue, but scriptwriter Burnett retains that isolation problem. He doesn’t add anything original that will elevate the film above standard fare for the TV viewers attracted to the numerous music/dance “reality” programs.
Renown British director Alan Parker, known for many critically acclaimed and financial successful films, including “Midnight Express,” “The Commitments,” “Evita,” and “Angela’s Ashes,” gave the 1980 film (which won two music-related Oscars, but also received nominations for screenplay, editing, and sound) a real unpolished, organic feel, and the editing never got in the way as it does in the remake. The producers (four regular, four executive) fail their audience by having picked freshman director Kevin Tancharoen to helm Burnett’s screenplay, hoping his promotion from the small screen, where he directed episodes of MTV’s 2007 reality series “Dance Life,” would liven up the retreaded script. Well, he added a ton of in-your-face flash to “Fame,” but the overproduced result has disastrous consequences. That’s the sound of the audience suffocating in this West Side renovation with its start-to-finish soundtrack.
The signature and eponymous song, belted out exactly at the end of the first hour in the Parker version, now gets shifted to the end credits. (This works for me, as I don’t like the remix.) The 1980 presentation, however, was a showstopper, with the entire cast of students streaming out into the street, their gyrating bodies rubbing up against flesh and fenders. Then there’s Irene Cara’s intimate performance of “Out Here on My Own,” another highlight from the original, which, thank goodness, gets similar treatment this go-round, but later gets a entire school leave-no-student-out graduation production upgrade.
The only actor in the current film whho matches the vocal chops of Cara, who won an Oscar and Golden Globe for co-writing “Flashdance…What a Feeling” from that 1983 hit, is Naturi Naughton, an original member of the platinum selling girl group 3LW. Her multi-dimensional character Denise is burdened with dreadfully stereotypical parents: the obstinate dad who wants her only to be a concert pianist, and the demure, subservient mom who finally speaks her mind at the totally expected moment. Other young talent that you might recognize include Kay Panabaker, who, at 19, already has a long television career, including roles in the mid-decade series “Summerland” and “Phil of the Future.” Her amiable romantic other is Walter Perez, who has appeared in numerous TV guest roles, as well as having landed a recurring character on the terrific series, “Friday Night Lights.”
Other lifts from the first film include the cafeteria free-form music/dance jam sequence, as a way to get the entire young cast jumping in the same room at the same time. Also intact is the subway suicide attempt scene, albeit the stop is changed from Times Square to Broadway, a reflection of the original’s High School of Performing Arts merger with the High School of Music and Art to become the Fiorello La Guardia School of the Arts, and its relocation next to Lincoln Center.
Sadly, everything is predictable, which is to the detriment of the mostly fine, young talent that appears in this ineffective retread. I hope that their fame, unlike this film, isn’t fleeting.