FILM SEPTEMBER 25, 2009
Way back in 1980, when the Oscar-winning theme song of the movie Fame declared "I'm gonna live forever," it was easy to believe the lyric was an example of artistic license. Now, it's not so clear. With almost Biblical tenacity, the film begat a television series which begat a stage musical which begat a reality show. When that last iteration was cancelled after a single season in 2003, it was possible to imagine that the longest 15 minutes in show business history had finally ticked to a close. But no, Fame has risen from the grave again, like a zombie diva shimmying off the dirt.
The new movie opens with theater bulbs fizzing and crackling on a tarnished version of the original cursive Fame logo, and we hear Debbie Allen's voice uttering the iconic lines of the TV show's opening credits, "You got big dreams? You want fame? Well, fame costs, and right here is where you start paying. In sweat." It's a touching bid for nostalgia, though a somewhat odd one, given that few in the movie's target demographic are likely to have any idea what's going on.
Nor do the nods backward end there. Like the first film, this one is divided into five chapters, seasons in the lives of the students at New York's High School of Performing Arts, or "PA," as the students call it. And while the characters are new, they are familiar types: the restrained classical pianist who harbors a R&B star inside her (Naturi Naughton); the tentative, preppy performer who must find her voice (Kay Panabaker); the angry actor/rapper from a broken home (Collins Pennie); and so on. There is a spontaneous cafeteria jam session near the beginning of the film and a big graduation performance at the end. Debbie Allen, who was dance teacher Lydia Grant in the original, here plays Principal Angela Simms. She's assisted by a teaching staff made up of a drily supportive Kelsey Grammer; a hardnosed Bebe Neuwirth (together again!); a wry, endearing Megan Mullally; and an avuncular Charles S. Dutton.
For a while, it works rather better than you might expect, thanks mostly to the older performers--and especially Grammer and Mullally--who bring unanticipated depth and texture to their smallish roles. But the teachers gradually vanish from the film as the years tick by and the movie shifts its focus from the sweat paid in the classroom to the rewards that might be reaped outside it: a possible record deal, the backing to make an indie film, a guest role on a TV show. The kids, of course, learn a series of life lessons that will be visible a mile off to even the most sheltered viewer. And, of course, with one marginal exception, they graduate in triumph.
The movie does a reasonable job of approximating the hokey charm of the original, but this fidelity makes it an awkward fit for a more jaded, knowing age. Moreover, one of the principle advantages of the first film was its novelty: The idea of young singers, dancers, and musicians competing with one another for a chance at stardom was a fresh one in a world that had not yet encountered even the ur-"Idol," "Star Search." Today, one can scarcely turn on the television without being subjected to a parade of up-and-comers or down-and-outers with hungry eyes and fixed smiles grasping for some edge, some break that will separate them from the pack. Why plunk down 20 dollars for a fictionalized version of this showbiz Darwinism when you can see the real(ish) thing for free several nights a week?
Almost in spite of itself, the movie draws attention to this broader cultural shift in our relation to fame. What was once a relatively idiosyncratic aspiration has become a national obsession. As the chief diva on the new TV series "Glee" explained, with only limited exaggeration, "Nowadays, being anonymous is worse than being poor. Fame is the most important thing in our culture now." The movie makes efforts here and there to push back against the cult of empty celebrity--"We don't care about your head shot or your dress size or your dreams of being in OK magazine," Principal Simms explains early on. But there's a certain "do what I say, not what I do" quality to such protestations in a film that announces its object right there in the four-letter title.
Indeed, this may be one reason--along with the relative talent of the performers involved--that the PA teachers are so much more interesting as characters than the PA students: They've made their peace with the quest for stardom; for them, the work and the art are their own rewards. To my mind, the most affecting moment in the film by far was no bout of adolescent histrionics--the half-hearted suicide attempt, the teary breakup--but a scene in which Mullally, the vocal coach, wistfully explains how, even after quitting the audition circuit and deciding to teach, she still sees Broadway shows and thinks, "I could do that." You can keep your Fame. But I look forward to the day that someone sets a sequel in the teacher's lounge.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.