Chasing 'Fame,' In The Clumsiest Possible Way

Students in 'Fame'

At the New York City High School of Performing Arts, artistically gifted students spend four years perfecting their games, performing every chance they get — including at the school's Halloween carnival — in their pursuit of stardom. Saeed Adyani/MGM hide caption

itoggle caption Saeed Adyani/MGM

It's been almost three decades since Alan Parker's Fame — a symphony of leg warmers, roller skates and personalized tank tops — bounded across our screens, an ebullient fashion disaster that nevertheless helped to define one of our more embarrassing decades. Fame was no one's idea of a masterpiece, but its young cast, led by Irene Cara and leading us through four years at the fictionalized High School of the Performing Arts in New York City, was engaging and believably hungry.

Fame

  • Director: Kevin Tancharoen
  • Genre: Musical Drama
  • Running Time: 107 minutes

Rated PG: You'll leave out of boredom before you take offense.

With: Tracy Shibata, Naturi Naughton, Debbie Allen and Megan Mullally

By contrast, the posse of hopefuls in Kevin Tancharoen's remake (most of whom appear to be on their 10th repeat of 10th grade) is a black hole of simper, strut and swagger. Less a reimagining than a zombie resurrection, Tancharoen's moronic attempt at teen entertainment is more inert than a bivalve and more musically challenged than the average American Idol contestant. In the same way that the summer's health care town hall shenanigans make you despair for the future of civilization, Fame makes you despair for the future of movies.

By 1980, Alan Parker already had four features, one Oscar nomination (for Midnight Express) and three BAFTA awards under his belt. Tancharoen, whose main claim to, uh, fame is 2007's The Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll, wasn't even born when Parker's cast hit the boards; he's barely 22, and his immaturity is stamped all over the screen.

Using his camera like a salad chopper, he turns dancers into dismembered body parts and group numbers into relays of punishing close-ups. Context is invisible and irrelevant: Where the original created a down-and-dirty city environment and a school we could actually see, this fractured mess could have been filmed anywhere, anytime.

Almost written by Allison Burnett (scribe of such deathless fare as Resurrecting the Champ and Autumn in New York), Fame features characters on arcs to nowhere and with one defining trait apiece. There's the tortured classical pianist who's really a belter at heart (the talented Naturi Naughton, so good as Lil' Kim in Notorious earlier this year); the actress wannabe with the personality of a fetus (Kay Panabaker); the angry black man with the hard-luck past (Collins Pennie); the insipid singer emoting through perfect teeth (Asher Book).

Heartstrings are plucked on cue by the suicidal ballet dancer (Paul McGill) who learns that great hair won't save him from being shipped back to Ohio, his New York career-dreams dashed — but by that point we'd reached senior year (and the film's final 15 minutes), and I still didn't care: I was terrified we were going to have to watch them all repeat a grade.

Naturi Naughton in 'Fame' i i

Naturi Naughton found her own kind of fame at 15, when her group 3LW saw its first album go platinum. Other acting credits include Little Inez in Hairspray and Lil' Kim in Notorious. Saeed Adyani/MGM hide caption

itoggle caption Saeed Adyani/MGM
Naturi Naughton in 'Fame'

Naturi Naughton found her own kind of fame at 15, when her group 3LW saw its first album go platinum. Other acting credits include Little Inez in Hairspray and Lil' Kim in Notorious.

Saeed Adyani/MGM

Some of the more experienced actors might have countered the script's lack of dramatic tension, had their director not balked at holding his camera for more than a few seconds on anyone older than 30. Kelsey Grammer and the terrific Bebe Neuwirth, playing teachers, appear only in frustrating flashes, while the normally amazing Megan Mullally, though permitted to sing, is made to sound like a strangled chipmunk. And if anyone can tell me what Howard W. Gutman, the recently appointed U.S. ambassador to Belgium, is doing here in the role of a parent, I would be eternally grateful.

The original Fame won two music-related Oscars and an enduring place in pop-culture history; its successor will be forgotten faster than the most recent winner of So You Think You Can Dance? "You keep asking me out and I keep saying no; why do you keep trying?" says Fetal Actress to Perfect Teeth. "Because the script has given me nothing else to do," is the subliminal response.

My advice to potential audiences: Find something else to do.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.