Movie Review: ‘Fame’

09.25.09 8 years ago 4 Comments

The best part of Kevin Tancharoen’s reimagining of “Fame” is the closing credits. That sounds negative and I wasn’t a fan of the movie, but it’s not quite as bad as it sounds.

It just happens that “Fame” has a very good closing credit sequence, set to Naturi Naughton’s cover of the Oscar-winning title track. As the song plays, the young castmembers come out and do funny dances as their names are displayed and then come out and prance around the stage together. There’s more exuberance, freedom and joy of performance in those four or five minutes than in most of the rest of the movie combined. All of the actors come to life and you see just how much fresh talent Tancharoen was working with and just how badly shackled most of them were by the tentativeness of Allison Burnett’s script and by a slew of questionable editing decisions.

There are other moments in “Fame” where that talent gets to shine, but there are still more moments where they’re suck reading stilted dialogue and rushing through seemingly important life events as if somebody were clocking the reels with a stopwatch.

[More “Fame” after the break…]

In one of several poor decisions, the new “Fame” follows the structure of the original film, tracing a group of aspiring students from their auditions through all four years at the High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. It’s one thing that 107 minutes may not be enough to do justice to the full high school experience, told chapter-by-chapter. It’s another thing that if you’re casting a group of relative unknowns, most of them aren’t going to be able to convey either an aging process or the sort of performative maturation that one might undergo after four years of rigorous training and discipline. 

So Kay Panabaker’s Jenny arrives in school as an untight little girl and we’re supposed to believe, by the end, that she’s found a way to loosen up and become and seasoned singer and actress, but all she really does is let her hair down between her sophomore and junior years.

And Collins Pennie’s Malik is supposed to have figured out how to tap into his wounded, angry psyche, but after four years, his breakout moment is a hip-hop performance so ripped off from Kanye West that I expected the rapper to interrupt the movie and demand royalties.

This doesn’t mean that either Panabaker or Pennie gave a bad performance, just that the movie’s expansive scope did them no favors.

It’s an expansive scope that’s really only expansive in years. I’m not really a fan, but the original movie has drugs, abortion, swearing, sex and actual real-life stakes. The new “Fame” has a couple disapproving parents, a couple shady producers and one slightly sleazy soap star. The most controversial thing these teens do is text while their teachers are talking. Heck, the new movie can’t even bring itself to acknowledge its one [presumably] gay character and, of all the students in the movie, he’s the only one who fails. It’s a white-washing of reality that’s at odds with Scott Kevan’s faux-gritty cinematography. 

The absence of anything that would go darker than a PG rating prevents the movie from having any true substance or relevance to today’s kids. And don’t give me the whole “We wanted the rating and didn’t want to get in trouble with the MPAA” nonsense, because 8 p.m. shows airing on ABC Family can be edgier and more topical than the new “Fame.” I guess parents and very young female viewers will be inspired by the last act of the movie, where people must say and sing “Believe in your dreams” at least 50 times, but if you’re looking for anything deeper than platitudes, you want to look elsewhere. 

The story’s flow is choppy at best, so choppy that it really might have been wiser to do away with any attempt to show progressing friendships or relationships at all. A smarter, less commercial movie could have been made around the structure (or lack thereof) of Robert Altman’s “The Company,” a movie about a ballet ensemble in which the big emotional moments are elided in favor of concentrating on the actual training and process a dancer has to go through. Altman’s technique on that movie allowed the actors to showcase their abilities, minimized any acting limitations they had and dodged long conversations where people talk about their dreams and tell each other exactly what each scene is about.

For maybe 30 minutes, “Fame” actually resembles that sort of movie. There are seemingly crucial scenes missing everywhere, but their absence simulates the passing of time in an impressionistic way, as if screenwriter Burnett decided snippets of school life were more important than soap opera theatrics. Then, in the second half, Burnett goes exactly the opposite way and all you want is for people to sing and/or dance again.

There are very good scenes scattered. An early jam in the cafeteria, in which a full-fledged musical number breaks out, with students from all fields strutting their stuff, is tremendous. Instead of sticking with that, the camera follows the one character who doesn’t appear capable of enjoying the anarchy as she leaves the lunchroom. That combination of energy and freedom, which I’ve generally found to be characteristic of arts students, is also on returns in a Halloween party sequence. 

There are a few good individual moments. Naughton has a great voice, even if her character’s not very interesting. Asher Book has a good voice and CW-friendly looks, even if he doesn’t have any character at all. Both actors, like so many of their castmates, only exhibit a personality and comfort level in the closing credits.

And yes, “So You Think You Can Dance” veteran Kherington Payne, the one reason I was willing to take a chunk out of a busy Friday to go see “Fame” in the first place, dances marvelously. When she’s dancing, she has can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her screen presence. When she has dialogue, you realize why didn’t have more dialogue. Fortunately, Payne is the centerpiece of at least three dance numbers, which play well even if she’s been gifted with lesser choreography than she got on “SYTYCD.”

On the adult side, Megan Mullally, stripped of all of her sitcom mannerisms, has a good karaoke performance. Charles Dutton, pretty much the master of onscreen empowerment, whips out his inspirational “Rudy” schtick. Somehow Kelsey Grammer and Bebe Neuwirth share no screen time together, but they’re both fine. And Debbie Allen is wasted in two scenes.

With reality shows like “SYTYCD” and “American Idol,” viewers are aware of televised shortcuts to entertainment fame (even if those shortcuts came after a decade of struggle we never saw). “Fame,” then, ought to have been a way to show the hard work and dedication that go into making one’s dreams come true. Instead, it feels like just another spineless cop-out, albeit one with a couple flashy numbers.

“Fame” is now in theaters.

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