Earnest Remake Offers a Mixed Claim to 'Fame'
By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Sept. 25, 2009
In an "American Idol" world, where everyone gets a shot as long as they get in line, where upcoming generations are raised to believe that celebrity is manifest destiny, where everyone's an amateur judge, where high-schoolers break effortlessly into musical theater all over TV, where even Tom DeLay can "dance" in front of millions -- what newness and relevance does a "Fame" remake hold?
Answer: a reality check. So you think you can dance? Sometimes you're just not good enough, even if your sacred dream is to be a superstar. Sometimes it's not meant to be, kid. Stop crying. Get a job.
The remake of the 1980 film does not shrink from the brutality of talent's natural selection. Success takes work but is not guaranteed by work.
Like the original, this "Fame" tracks a clot of students through four years at a rigorous performing-arts high school in Manhattan. Both films feature doubtful parents, exacting teachers and kids of nearly every ethnicity and skill level. Half of the remake is nearly a scene-by-scene re-creation of Alan Parker's original "Fame," which nevertheless remains longer, grungier, more freewheeling and, like life, absolutely not PG-rated.
This new "Fame," whitewashed for the kids, leaps into a catchy rhythm at the start: An engaging audition sequence is followed by a bouncy, buoyant freshman year in which all the players are trotted out in intercut classroom scenes. There's the heartthrob who sounds like Jason Mraz (or is it James Blunt?), the mousy monologuist who's begging to be liberated from her shyness, the classical pianist with a hidden desire to be the next Alicia Keys, the hyper-indie budding filmmaker bedecked in tweed and newsboy cap. All these parts are played engagingly by youthful unknowns who sidestep stereotype by virtue of their likability and the no-nonsense screenplay.
Pickier viewers will find things to hate: the cloying pep talks, the amped-up practice montages, the irrationally obstinate parents who stonewall their children's dreams just so there can be an emotional reconciliation later on. But "Fame" is a harmless diversion, and a more solid, nuanced, mature and bald-faced version of young ambition than fairy-tale characters like Hannah Montana and the Jonas Brothers.
The original and the remake form a nice mini-curriculum on How Things Change. The Manhattan of 1980, a sprawling, golden maze of soot, humidity and broken glass, is now a crisp, gray-blue, vertical kingdom of Oz. Cadillacs, quaaludes and Carson have given way to swank lounges, salon-styled haircuts and Santigold. And there is less hurt and desperation and identity crisis than in 1980. Remember Irene Cara's sad, soft-core fate in the original? How the mousy girl also challenged her Jewish heritage? How the extracurricular activities included abortion and drug use? All this is gone in 2009.
One crucial thing that remains is the tough love from the school's faculty (Bebe Neuwirth, Kelsey Grammer and Megan Mullally), whose real-life experience with both audition heartbreak and Broadway ovation inform the compassion and mercilessness in their portrayals. Mullally in particular anchors the movie with a deft, brief, bittersweet scene in which her students ask her why she "quit" performing, as if she made a conscious decision to surrender what she loves to become a teacher. Her subtle playing of the scene, like a faraway sigh set to words, reinforces the timeless message of "Fame," 29 years later.
Sometimes love just ain't enough.
Fame (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for language, teen drinking and a sexual situation.