Before it became a veritable cottage industry – having spawned a six season TV series, an Off-Broadway production, multiple imitators and the current big screen remake – Fame meant one thing only: the 1980 Alan Parker film. And that’s as it should be, as Parker imbued his depiction of the struggles of students trying to make it at Manhattan’s grueling School of Performing Arts with an inimitable combination of poignant nostalgia and hard edged realism.
In the current reworking, first time filmmaker Kevin Tancharoen goes, as the famous ballad sung by Irene Cara in the original says, “Out here on my own.” Let it never be said that he attempted to duplicate Parker’s work. Instead, he and screenwriter Allison Burnett reduce Christopher Gore’s original screenplay to shambles, turning it into a heavily stylized over-produced mess. This is not, in any sense, an accurate depiction of life at an arts school. It’s a giant MTV VMA performance that would be more at home on the Radio City Music Hall stage.
Gone are such memorable characters as Leroy, the street thug who couldn’t read, Angelo, who struggled with drugs and the troubled legacy of his icon Freddie Prinze and Doris, who longed to be seen as more than a nice girl. In their stead Tancharoen and Burnett give us such clunkers as Jenny Garrison (Kay Panabaker), whose defining trait seems to be that she gets nervous in front of the class, and Malik Washburn (Collins Pennie) who wants to be a rapper and is constantly angry. The actors – also including boy band artist Asher Book and Naturi Naughton – share the nice bland complexion of archetypes sent straight from central casting. The new creative team deserves credit for trying to rework things for a modern setting, but they prove themselves unable to think in anything but trite clichés.
The premise remains the same – the students enter as green freshmen and leave as seasoned seniors – but the journey never feels complete. There’s no sense of an arc in any of the individual storylines and the drama consists of subdued confrontations that are easily dealt with and overcome. The material demands a powerful nostalgic sensibility, the feel of an almost faraway time capsule look at the excitement of the period in which everything seems possible and the promises of tomorrow have not yet gone unfulfilled. The best high school movies project that, inspiring the audience to care enough to wonder about the people the graduating seniors will become. Anytime Tancharoen makes an overture in that direction he submerges it beneath some heightened, kinetic musical performance, usually complete with overbearing sound effects, stagey lighting and frenzied dancing, or by raising and quickly dismissing the rote interpersonal dramatics.
This new Fame grates so profoundly for another key reason, a symptom of the profound cultural shifts that have subsumed Hollywood over the past three decades. It’s too squeaky clean, scrubbed free of any of the grittiness of real life, robbed of any hint that things might not turn out well for the characters. The High School Musical imprint can be felt throughout, as the studious avoidance of sex, drugs, or other button-pushing dilemmas starts to feel like a copout.
Unfortunately, these days conventional wisdom holds that only R rated action movies and comedies have any chance to make money, so Tancharoen probably couldn’t have avoided the obsessive family friendliness. Still, it robs the material of its soul. In fact, only one scene transcends the façade and evokes genuine feeling: Naughton’s terrific rendition of “Out Here on My Own,” which gets closer to evoking the emotions swelling in an artist struggling to find her place in the world than a thousand heavily choreographed hip-hop dance numbers ever could.
The Upside: Naturi Naughton can sing; the filmmakers didn’t deep-six the Oscar winning theme song
The Downside: The material’s been scrubbed so clean it might as well by High School Musical 4
On the Side: This is Tancharoen’s first movie though he’s done a lot of directing for MTV and for live performances.