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RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes
- Extended Dance Edition
- Deleted Scenes
- Fame National Talent Search Winner
- Music Video
Alan Parker’s Fame – Characters + High School Musical = Unsatisfying
Kay Panabaker? Naturi Naughton? Kherington Paine? Megan Mullally! Bebe Neuwirth! Kelsey Grammar! CHARLES S. DUTTON!
Questionably talented young’uns at the New York High School for the Performing Arts want you to remember their name forever. They struggle through four years of supposedly grueling training from Charles S. Dutton and the razor-sharp tongue of Bebe Neuwirth. Along the way they find love, break up and find love with each other again in a montage.
Hey, kids! Look! A new Rob Zombie movie!
There is potential in Fame. There are some decent performers with potential, great dancing with potential for good camerawork to showcase it, and a timeless premise that could potentially be updated for today. But Fame squanders all that potential and personifies what Bebe Neuwirth says to a student in the last half of the film: “Sometimes we get students who are promising, but they never progress past that early promise.” No matter what potential Fame has or had, it never even begins to reach it.
Fame (from now on to be referred to as Fame 09! . . . or maybe just F09me! . . . No we’ll go with Fame 09) is a remake of Alan Parker’s seminal 1980 film about high schoolers in the New York City High School for the Performing Arts. The remake takes the same basic structure but leaves the character development, pathos and gravitas aside taking just the potential of a story that reaches the High School Musical and Glee crowds. That begs the question: Why even remake Fame if you’re going to dump everything that made it interesting? Because the musical numbers weren’t the interesting thing about Parker’s Fame, but rather the kids dancing them. Fame 09 has completely jettisoned any interesting characters and any interesting development and conflict for musical numbers that range from middling to great yet cut short.
This is the point where I would normally recount the different characters and their various plights, but I honestly can’t remember the name of a single one right now. It’s an ensemble drama, yes, but the script (by Bloodfist 3’s Allison Burnett!!!) never dwells with one character long enough to create any concern, or gives them anything more to do than an average episode of Degrassi Junior High. I know there is nervous girl, perfect boy, black kid, black girl with a singing voice, geeky guy and hot dancer girl with the “dangerous” ethnic boyfriend, but I don’t think the character’s names are mentioned more than once in the film. In the “curtain call” for the leads during the credits they featured one actress and I thought, “Who was that? Was she even in this movie?” And these are just the main characters. Then we have the random supporting characters thrown at us and we are expected to sympathize with them even though we have no reason to. In fact, the same emotional connection is non-existent for even the lead characters.
While I See You: The Avatar Broadway Experience was a commercial success, many bemoaned the lack of photoreal characters and unrealistic 3D.
Maybe a lot of these problems would be overlooked if the kids themselves were as talented as everyone else in the film seems to think they are, but for the most part, their talent lies hidden behind autotune and quick camera cuts. Black girl with the voice and dancer girl are greatly talented, and they come out the best in the film. But nervous girl and perfect guy have performances that are supposed to be considered strong, but the overproduced vocal tracks erase any trace of connection and emotion from their voice. It leaves the performances feeling pretty lifeless and without energy. The dance numbers fare a bit better than the lifeless musical numbers, but the tremendous dancing talent on display is often left relatively unseen by stylistic camerawork that distorts the continuity of the dancing.
The teachers fare a bit better with their very limited screen-time. Kelsey Grammer is woefully underused, as is Bebe Neuwirth, but Charles S. Dutton has a few nice moments as an acting teacher. He has a monologue at the end about how everything we are ashamed of and we try to hide is ultimately what makes us “us,” that he sells with such truth that it is actually touching. The best of the lot is Megan Mullally who has one of the films best songs (which is still crippled at times by autotune) and offers the film’s rawest and most truthful moments as a teacher recounting the disappointments of not working professionally leading to her teaching instead of “doing.” This raw emotional truth and feeling of regret and disappointment from working in such a harsh business is powerful, and sorely missed in the rest of the film. The other moments echoing this same sentiment never ring as true as Mullally’s scene. There is another scene where Neuwirth tells a student he’ll never have what it takes to be a professional dancer that rings completely hollow –not by her delivery but rather by his reactions- that could have been more powerful than Mullaly’s, but sadly the film drops the ball. Neuwirth tells the boy he’ll never make it but could possibly be an excellent teacher. There could be an interesting parallel here – has Neuwirth been disappointed like Mullally? Did someone once tell her the same thing? – but these interesting parallels are dropped for an emotionally hollow attempted suicide.
The rest of the film seems to suffer the same problem. It constantly moves the focus away from that which is truly the most interesting. While I’d much rather see the characters struggling to learn their craft and find their own artistic voice, the film seems far more content with having the characters face shallow problems of success. Yes, that’s right, most of the students face challenges reserved for the third reel of a musician’s biopic. The high school students are being ripped off by unscrupulous producers! The record company only wants to sign one member of the trio! Asian girl can’t keep her grades up because she is too busy on her TV show! What is one to do??? Pair these creative “conflicts” with the personal dramas that are lifted from the CW circa 1998 (boyfriend misreads girlfriend’s smile to another boy!!!! Uh-oh!) and we have an episodic film that is devoid of all interesting narrative drive and conflict. Not to mention all of this “development” is intended to span the course of 4 years, whereas all the development is actually equal to 30 minutes of an after school special. (Fat Albert) Not to mention there is no development in any of their talents to be seen in four years of study. By the end of the film dancer girl gets a job with a prestigious modern dance company, but she’s just as good her senior year as she was her freshman year. The same goes for perfect boy and even nervous girl, who simply learned to SING LOUDER.
You want it to happen. You’re practically begging for it the entire film. You want them to speak to each other. Acknowledge one another. At least eye contact! But no, this is the closest they ever come to being reunited.
To top it all off, this is supposed to be a musical. The musical numbers range in quality. The first, an impromptu jam session in the cafeteria echoing Parker’s Hot Lunch is a jumbled mess. There are a few solo numbers of varying quality (Perfect boy and nervous girl are resoundingly meh, while black girl does very well) and dance sequences of equally unreliable quality. There is a brief section of a dance at the school’s “CarnEVIL” that is fantastic, but then the camerawork jumps to 300esque speed ramping and slow motion and it all goes downhill. There is a Fosse inspired piece that borders on fantastic, but that’s because the camera mostly stays out of the dancers’ way except for a few well-choreographed moves.
I am about to step up on a musical soapbox, so I warn all of you:
Filming a good musical sequence is much like filming a good action sequence: You must have an excellent sense of geography, and you must know the through-line of the action and where to focus at any given moment. Modern musicals rarely understand this. At the risk of sounding like Andy Rooney, the old ones did it better. There is grace to setting the camera on a wide shot of Gene Kelly and simply allowing him to dance. Watching it there is a certain energy that is magically captured on film. That energy is for the most part lost in today’s musicals. The geography and sense of purpose in the movement is replaced with quick jump cuts. The camera doesn’t know how to focus our attention on the vital movement, and it hardly ever allows a moment for breath where we can simply watch the dancers dance. In fact, the camera is dancing more than the actors are, with even less purpose! But a team with a good eye knows how to use the rapid succession of cuts in relation to the movement – its feel and its energy – much like good use of shaky-cam in an action film. Watch the end of All That Jazz and see how well Bob Fosse could do it. Rob Marshall succeeds in Cell Block Tango. Many imitators fall flat on their face. In the best dance piece in Fame 09 (the Fosse-esque piece) there is a fantastic lift that is performed. The camera follows the actress as she is being lifted and we see only her back and her quarter profile. We miss the stunning lift altogether as the camera swiftly follows the most boring thing we could have watched. It’s as if someone shot I Got Rhythm from An American in Paris solely on Kelly from the waist up. You’re missing the actual dancing! But nowadays musicals wrongfully equate frenetic camerawork with the electric energy present when a performer is allowed to perform uninhibited. The camera flourishes, the autotune, the prerecorded tracks . . . it all inhibits the performance when it’s used like it is in this film.
To me, the best way to describe Fame 09 is as follows: Alan Parker’s Fame was a New York movie: Gritty, unflinching and cynical while maintaining its goodness at heart. If Fame 09 is a New York movie, then Fame 09 is a Juliani-era New York movie: scrubbed sterile and clean, it loses much of what made it interesting in the first place.
Call me Forest Whitaker one more time. I dare you.
The DVD comes with both the theatrically released version and the Extended Dance Edition!!!! (EDD!!!!) The extended edition doesn’t give any new insight to characters or character development, but it does offer you more time with mediocre to almost-great performance. The deleted scenes, however, do offer some better insight to the characters. It doesn’t make them much more interesting, but it is more insight, so I guess that’s good. There is a performance of the Fame national talent search winner which is a couple of guys singing the song Out Here on my Own which is pretty dang good – better than most of what we hear in the movie itself. The most ironic feature is a series of vignettes for each character entitled “Remember my Name” doing exactly what the movie itself couldn’t.