**/**** Image B Sound B Extras B
starring Irene Cara, Lee Curreri, Laura Dean, Antonia Franceschi
screenplay by Christopher Gore
directed by Alan Parker
*/**** Image N/A Sound C Extras D
starring Debbie Allen, Charles S. Dutton, Kelsey Grammer, Megan Mullaly
screenplay by Allison Burnett, based on the screenplay by Christopher Gore
directed by Kevin Tancharoen
by Walter Chaw Alan Parker seems to fancy himself a bit of a sociologist--a chronicler of Truth surveying man's inhumanity to man and the injustices perpetrated especially in the United States, offering up pictures that seek to expose just exactly what's wrong with his non-native land. When he makes a good movie, like Angel Heart, it's good because he's not proselytizing about corruption so much as he's indulging in his suspicions about the Home of the Brave. (Filthy with evil, right?) The matinee of appreciation for Parker is not surprisingly around fifteen, when stuff like Mississippi Burning and Midnight Express has the weight of sagacity rather than the reek of puerile outrage and unbecoming grandstanding. He's Stanley Kramer with a drug and counterculture fixation that marks him as a product less of Mod than of Free Love. Fame is the perfect Parker vehicle because it's an anthology of Parker's perception of inner-city woes, and as it appears at the end of the Seventies, the decade that was America's crucible of self-reflection, the sort of prison-wallet Passion Play of which Parker's most fond finds a more tolerable climate. It's perfect, too, because Parker's background in commercials often leads him to make films that are told in images impossible to misconstrue with concepts that aren't necessarily substantial enough for a feature. (See: his big-screen adaptations of Pink Floyd's "The Wall" and Webber's awful Evita.) Fame's structure is a sequence of vignettes and its characters a collection of types, so that the demand to sustain itself over the course of two hours is ameliorated by the fact that it's basically an anthology piece.
Take Coco (Irene Cara), the bright-faced, scrubbed, energetic singer/dancer looking to front a band anchored by ace keyboardist Bruno (Lee Curreri), who is reluctant to leave his basement, where he's composing something called "Requiem for Buck Rogers." Her fate in the film is to be exploited on camera for her ambition--first by an opportunistic talent agent, then by Parker, then by us. Could this scene be unpunished/unjustified in 2009? 'Course not. Coco and Bruno are just two of the students at an unnamed, fictional New York high school for the performing arts whom Fame follows from audition to matriculation. Other standouts include sexy-dancing street-tough Leroy (Gene Anthony Ray) and gawky actor Montgomery (Paul McCrane) and his virgin fag-hag inamorata Doris (Maureen Teefy). The teachers, meanwhile, are a coterie of the weary, frustrated, and starcrossed. Standouts include crusty music prof Shorofsky (Albert Hague), sincere drama teacher Farrell (Jim Moody), and tough-as-nails English prof Mrs. Sherwood (Anne Meara). Fame touches on Parker's yen for getting all emotional about popular issues: have a kid come out, have a girl get raped, have an OG learn to read--you know, the usual high-school journal stuff, which means that Fame is either a work of absolute empathetic genius or the work of a guy arrested at a certain level of emotional intelligence and destined to evolve no further.
What recommends Fame to whatever degree that it doesn't totally suck is that Parker's still content at this point in his career to not resolve every single storyline--to resist comfortable endings for these misfit band kids even when convention demands it. It's a film packed full of moments, like when awkward, gum-chewing Lisa (Laura Dean) makes a joke out of her suicide attempt. The Oscar-nominated screenplay by Christopher Gore (I'd call it "inexplicably nominated," except that we're talking about the Academy here) is spiced with a few "fucks" and "shits" and a notable dialogue revolving around miscegenation that uses phrases like "black cherry" and so on, but is otherwise the work of a dickhead or a child, albeit one with stray insights into the difficulties--particularly sexual difficulties--of kids coming of age in the pressure cooker of high school. For his part, Parker doesn't flinch from the leering nudity, meaning that if we buy that these actors are high-school kids, as we're supposed to, we're being implicated in pedophilia--meaning Parker's learned a bit from his commercial vid cohort Adrian Lyne. Yet we're freed from having to deal with any of the ramifications suggested by the picture, because here's this genuine ugliness in the middle of all this liberal sabre-rattling. No matter how much Parker will protest that he's got his eyes facing God, his dick's down here with the rest of us.
It's ultimately not a bad thing in a film about high school and coming of age, is it? Mixing the ideals of youth in a musky, lumpen stew with the awakening of the flesh, that is. Fame proves in this way to be one of Parker's better efforts, in that its schizophrenia slots in well with his extreme artistic limitations. It's high-minded smut that exposes its subjects as the purest purveyors of high-minded smut, a string of commercial interludes strung together by the exact formula for fame parlayed by people like Oprah Winfrey into cults of occasionally dangerous populism. Insincere, facile, going so far as to suggest that a school for performing arts only has one gay guy (thus revealing Parker to be the worst kind of hypocrite and prig), Fame is a blueprint for Parker's career, really. Fragmented, overwrought, and hollow, it carries with it Parker's ill-concealed agenda to take a piss on everything American from his lofty perch atop his director's chair across the pond. I've said it before: the man is an asshole.
A remake in the spirit of Camp more than of Parker's occasionally crass film, Kevin Tancharoen's Fame is a collection of clichés rattling around inside a dented can with other teen-targeted dance movies I don't understand. I used to watch the television show based on the 1980 film in syndication during years of lazy afternoons with nothing better to do and am doing my level best to recall what it was about the trials and travails of moony teens moving through a fictional New York school for the performing arts that once held me so enthralled. I'd hazard that maybe a child's emotional development depends on one's desire for repetitive messages of uplift that, more often than not, involve the discovery of hidden (at least underestimated) talents. Enough that it's very much like substance addiction. It's what I'm going to use to defend my love affair with "Charles in Charge" as well.
I most identified with Bruno and crotchety Shorofsky, holdovers from the Parker film and representing to me that which I desired most in my upbringing, I think: a loving, if distant, immigrant father; and a belief that a childhood of piano lessons at the feet of the meanest piano teacher/Scottie breeder on the planet would result finally in "acceptance." It's all such frosted bullshit, of course, but it provided succour of the sort that only cathode-ray teats are capable of providing sad little boys on Saturday afternoons. Tancharoen's Fame is either a complete desecration of whatever holiness graced the series for an otherwise-incomprehensible six-season run or the exact cynical exhumation of its childish mendacity. Thrill as the shy actress, the misunderstood black girl yearning to ghetto out, the obnoxious white kid, the gifted dancer with unexpected depths, and their stentorian instructors test melodramatic limits in pursuit of ephemeral fame. The NBC Must-See TV parade of teachers played by Kelsey Grammar, Bebe Neuwirth, and Megan Mullally are offered each a shining moment to confirm they're several times better than material like this but that television popularity is often a double-edged sword.
The 2009 Fame is absolutely shameless in its sadistic trotting-out of every single rabbit in the tiny teen-pageant top hat. The black girl (Naturi Naughton) doesn't want to play the white man's music, man, she wants to sing bad hip-hop second to angry aspiring rapper Malik (Collins Pennie)--and when her parents see her on stage, there's a near-literal come to Jesus. A terrible actress in her extended audition scene (savvily cut for the theatrical release but not enough to obscure her character's essential hopelessness in her chosen vocation), Kay Panabaker, as mousy Jenny, gets to re-enact the on-camera Coco rape scene, although in the new, sanitized version it's girl power, baby, and all is well. Then there's the dancer from Iowa trying to live his dream and...and...and it's impossible to care about types that only come into focus when a real actor is using them as line-readers. I guess the question to ask is when tweens became a power-demographic in Hollywood, because Parker's Fame is more Saturday Night Fever than Titanic. Oh, well, so there's your answer.
THE BLU-RAY DISC (FAME 1980)/THE DVD (FAME 2009)
Parker's Fame comes home on Blu-ray from Warner in a ripe 1.78:1, 1080p/VC-1 encoded presentation that's bright and clean relative to the movie's previous incarnations on home video. If it's hardly a revelation, I'd argue that there's not much to reveal. The softness and haloing I'm going to blame on the typically diffuse cinematography of Parker's early work, but it's not necessarily a good thing that Fame looks more than ever like a high-end episode of "Taxi". The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 remix doesn't exactly challenge the format: The musical interludes are full but lacking much in the way of separation or, really, logic--it's just sort of a jail-break of noise, if you know what I mean. I suspect a 2.0 track would've sufficed; I guess what I'm saying is the DVD can't be a steep downgrade. On another track, Parker offers a laconic, damn-near somnambulistic commentary that demonstrates he's mastered the art of the drone. A pity that his recollections are so uniformly dry and uninteresting. Want to know that he thought of doing a European violin teacher after seeing a European violinist? You'll be pleased. Others need not apply. I would've preferred some insight into how he would fix our health-care state, as he has an opinion on all our failings.
"Interviews with Cast and Crew" (23 mins., SD) can be watched collectively or, preferable, as a branching option while the film unspools, announced by a glowing gold disc in the upper left corner of the screen. This brings up a PIP window in which actors and behind-the-scenes personnel (Ray, Parker, Maureen Teefy, Curreri, Dean) discuss the picture circa 2003--the worst for wear being Ray, who opines at one late point that, if asked, he'd do it all again. (Ray died of an HIV-related stroke shortly after this was taped.) "On Location with Fame" (12 mins., SD) is a vintage doc completely typical in every way. All involved have never been involved in something so amazing; all involved have never worked with people so talented. "Fame Field Trip" (11 mins., SD) takes us to the La Guardia School of Music and the Performing Arts--a real life Fame school--to see kids going to class to sing, act, dance, and play music. Purpose? Unclear. A standard-def trailer rounds out the platter.
Fox graced us with a check disc of the Fame remake. In other words, between the watermarks and shoddy compression, it's impossible to objectively assess the quality of the 2.40:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer. The DD 5.1 audio is similarly wonky, though that can't be blamed on the screener. Dialogue is soft and sounds like it was occasionally recorded in a bucket while the performances are blatantly overproduced. One of the charms of the Parker original is that a few of the acts therein actually sound like they're going to end up unknown and struggling. Ah, the magic of AutoTune. Much of the information is confined to the front speakers, for what it's worth; a generally poor mix. Between the picture's theatrical and extended viewing options--both of which are crammed onto the same side of the disc, presumably via seamless branching--choose the extended, if only for a less-insultingly-edited piece that gives its game cast more room to stand or fall on the proscenium. There's a good movie in here, somewhere--first step is to drop the plot.
Some of the DVD's "Deleted Scenes" (18 mins.) were reintegrated into the longer cut, most weren't, suggesting there's a whole helluva lot more footage of this film out there somewhere. "Character Profiles" (17 mins.) are completely useless and uninteresting crib notes on the major players, neither delivering the heft that these characters need nor suggesting that there would've been much point in fleshing them out to whatever degree that they weren't. Garbage in, garbage left out. "National Talent Search Finalists" (9 mins.) is footage from the cattle call that's much more entertaining when Simon and co. are talking over it on Fox, while the "Dances of Fame" (7 mins.) segregates the dances from the body of the film, which isn't blessing or beast. Capping things off is a music video for some horrible bit of business that I'm heavily into forgetting. Originally published: August 26, 2010.