I’ve been itching for an interesting musical recently. While watching television and doing a little YouTube surfing before I go to bed, I occasionally wonder if the short attention span that is always attributed to the dawn of the information age doesn’t mean that America is ready for a return to something like Vaudville, with traveling sets of variety acts, from singing and dancing to LOLCats and sketch comedy. I’m not sure what a LOLCat would look like live, but I bet you could flash 30 hilarious ones while the next act was setting up.
The variety show thought was nothing more than a tangent, my actual pop culture narrative of musicals on screen probably has roots in the Disney animated classics of the 90s. As soon as those started to drop off in quality, I was a theater kid in high school, getting my education in the Broadway musicals while memorizing the soundtrack to Moulin Rouge. From high school it was off to art school, a monumental waste of money that hopefully embedded eggs of success somewhere deep inside me, deep enough that they are still incubating and might hatch in the near future. In the recent musical past, I checked out Tyler Perry’s I Can Do Bad All By Myself, which had musical interludes to forward the plot and have been enjoying the hell out of Fox’s new musical/satire Glee.
The pieces were in place for me as a movie-goer to have a pleasant experience with a Fame remake. The original wasn’t good or bad, but it was fun. In an age of American Idol and countless other singing and talent programs captivating eyeballs worldwide, a re-imagining of a new class for the School of Performing Arts could have touched on some interesting subjects about what fame means now, 29 years after the original.
Unfortunately, the movie I got thought a Fame remake should be something else entirely.
Fame takes the structural lead of its predecessor. We follow a handful of teens as they attend a private school in New York for gifted performing artists. It’s called the School of Performing Arts, but everyone in Fame 2009 calls it “P.A.” Each teen has their own dream and their own obstacle to overcome during their four years at P.A. The film is split into five sections: Audition Day, Freshman Year, Sophomore Year, Junior Year and Senior Year. Each character gets one or two scenes per year for us to catch up on their progress, which means a total of 8 character scenes and one concluding scene for those actors with the most screen time. Peppered between those scenes are dance a musical numbers.
I wrote down the characters as the movie was playing, because they were all such stereotypical high school characters that would have had trouble working dramatically in 1980, let alone 2009. Each character is so shallow that they take two sentences at most to describe in full.
Jenny (Kay Panabaker) is a singer/actress consumed with stress until she dates Marco, then she is the victim of actor-on-actor sexual assault, pisses off Marco and graduates. Looks like a young Larisa Oleynik and would be perfect in a remake of The Secret World Of Alex Mack.
Marco’s (Asher Book) dad owns a restaurant where Marco started performing when he was young and therefore is one of the more talented students from scene one on. Dates Jenny and totally sees the sexual assault coming before he gets mad at her and graduates.
Denise (Naturi Naughton) is a singer/piano player whose father only wants her to play classical piano. She has a great voice and wants to sing, so she does and her father sees reason by the time she graduates.
Malik’s (Collins Pennie) sister was killed when he was young and his single mom works too hard for him to be wasting his time trying to be an actor. He wastes his time, ends up being a rapper and graduates anyway.
Kevin (Paul McGill) is the talented kid from the Midwest. However, that talent isn’t enough and after a quick suicide attempt Kevin graduates only to head home and take over his mother’s dance studio.
Victor (Walter Perez) is a producer who exists to connect Malik to Denise. He graduates.
Anna Maria Perez de Tagle plays an Asian girl whose name I never caught. She gets a job on Sesame Street and fails out of P.A. when her grades fall below a C average.
Alice (Kherington Payne) is a bored snob who has talent and briefly dates Victor, I guess. But she’s played by the So You Think You Dance girl, so none of that matters and life goes on regardless of her existence.
The only characters in the film that actually work are the teachers played by Kelsey Grammer, Charles S. Dutton, Megan Mullally and Bebe Neuwirth. Mullally is the only teacher who gets a humanizing backstory to illustrate how not everyone is going to be famous based on talent alone. The rest of the adults just know how to act, adding sadness, pride and wisdom as undercurrents to their performance. They aren’t written any better so this ends up highlighting how under-performed the kids are, maybe because the adolescent actors spent too much time rehearsing choreography and not enough time adding depth to their brief moments in the spotlight.
The performance aspect of Fame 2009 should have been the saving grace of the film. I still dig Step Up 2 The Streets because the ending dance scene in the rain is done well enough to make me forgive the drivel that comes before it. Sadly, Fame seems to think that the only thing that has changed between 1980 and now is pitch-corrected vocals and the pervasive inclusion of hip hop. The songs and dances want so hard to be organic, but they never are. Kherington Payne has a sexy piece of choreography that gets intercut with a dramatic scene between Kevin and his dance teacher, but not because the content of the dance informs the dialogue, but because it was time for another Kherington Payne scene and her character wasn’t up to anything interesting.
And – JESUS – we get it: hip hop beats and rapping are here to stay. High School Musical was a hit and all, but a movie with the plot of Fame shouldn’t forget that talent isn’t always what’s in the pop culture zeitgeist of your target audience. I’m sure there’s modern dance, ballet, concertos and operettas that teens would enjoy if Fame was interested in presenting anything in an interesting way.
This is the directorial debut of Kevin Tancharoen, who might as well be a robot for how bland this film looks. It’s not bad, but it never catches your attention. Even when the camera tries to create excitement by highlight specific pieces of chorography, it creates a division between “performance” scenes and hand-held “dramatic” scenes. An argument could be made that these characters only see their lives as stable while they are performing, but I don’t think Kevin’s that deep into his directorial job. At least let’s hope he’s not, because this level of mediocrity shouldn’t be anyone’s magnum opus of directing.
Fame may be the movie I had the least fun at all year, right down to my squeaky theater seat which made me self conscious of shifting my weight lest I distract the dead-quiet audience being subjected to cinematic oatmeal in front of us.
Why remake Fame if you don’t want to say anything about how the concept of fame has changed for the gifted youth of today? They have less public music programs and more access to internet fame. A DJ could have gotten sued for copyright infringement instead of the forgettable filmmaker character getting taken by a fake producer, someone could have found early-and-unwanted fame and had to deal with the paparazzi. Hell, there isn’t even a gay character to be handled stereotypically, and aren’t we supposed to be putting different sexual identities in our culture’s fictional high schools?
There’s just nothing interesting about Fame. You could have the exact same experience watching half-an-episode of American Idol, half-an-episode of So You Think You Can Dance and reading Chicken Soup For The Soul during commercial breaks. And doesn’t that sound fun?