Auditions. It’s hard to match the head rush that comes from watching that sweaty mix of hope and desperation, the crush of bodies locked in competition, the flubbed notes, the missed pirouettes, the missed opportunities. It’s drama writ large, and it is for this reason that many a performance film, from All That Jazz to Every Little Step to the original Fame, begins at the beginning:
The 2009 remake of Fame takes the same approach, opening with a voiceover from Debbie Allen’s famous speech—“You want fame? Well, fame costs”—as a mass of fresh-faced hopefuls converge on New York’s performing arts high school. They come bearing tubas, dance bags, scripts, a bad case of nerves and no small amount of hubris. The camera makes a broad, panoramic sweep, and we take it all in: The bitchy ballet teacher (Bebe Neuwirth) dismissing an under-talented wannabe; the overeager and overacting theater student; the rosin boxes waiting for point shoes; the Gumby-esque dancers warming up in the hallway. And in those first few moments, it’s all good. In fact, it’s very good.
But the rest of the remixed, Y2K version of Fame—let’s call it Fame.2—can’t match the grit and intensity of the Academy Award-winning original. Somewhere between development and production, Fame.2 got caught up in the moviemaking processor—the one that crushes creativity and originality and whips it into made-for-the-multiplex mush. The result is more MTV music video than exegesis on the life of the performing arts high-schooler.
The original Fame, directed by Alan Parker in 1980, took a cinéma vérité approach, giving the film a raw sense of immediacy. (The film was based on two real-life Manhattan performing arts high schools.) You could see the dust in the air of the old school building, smell the funk of a ballet class; taste the mystery meat in the substandard school cafeteria. (Shady Sadie!)
And if the Hot Lunch jam scene strained credulity—even at a performing arts school, how many kids burst into song, on cue?—somehow, it still felt spontaneous, fresh, real. Fame was a musical, yes, but above all, it was a musical drama. The music served the action, and not the other way around. By the end of the film, you cared deeply about the students: The ambitious Coco, played by the film’s star, Irene Cara; the firebrand but illiterate dancer, Leroy, played by the late, great Gene Anthony Ray. Considered one of the best movies ever made about high school, it launched the careers of Cara and Ray, spawned a TV show and inspired many a young dancer/singer/actor/musician to take a risk.
Fame.2 isn’t likely to do the same for Millennials. Directed by dancer/choreographer Kevin Tancharoen, it sacrifices the feel of the real in favor of the flash. Call it the Gossip Girl of the performing arts set.
The remake loosely adopts the same structure and character development of the original, following a group of students from freshman year through graduation, but there’s no “Leroy” character, no stuck-up but fabulously talented ballet dancer. There’s Denise, played by the gifted Naturi Naughton, a classically trained pianist who’d rather sing R&B; Victor (Walter Perez), a budding producer who loves a siddity jazz dancer; Malik, your requisite young angry black man (played by an overacting Collins Penne). Debbie Allen makes a cameo, playing the principal.
While the film ostensibly follows the lives of a multiracial bunch of eccentric New Yorkers, it feels dominated by the two least interesting characters: Jenny (Kay Panabaker) and Marco (Asher Book), two singing lovebirds who look and act like they’ve just stepped off the set of The Hills. Will Marco find out that Jenny almost got seduced on the casting couch? Who cares? You know you’ve got a problem when the teachers—Neuwirth, Kelsey Grammer, Charles S. Dutton, Megan Mullally—are more compelling than the students. These do not feel like New York kids.
Then, too, Fame.2 is sloppy in its details. The bitchy ballet teacher teaches not only ballet, but African dance and Broadway jazz and tap, too. The musical theater teacher confesses that she never had a professional career. (At a performing arts school? You’ve got to be kidding.) Malik, the acting student, suddenly turns into a rapper and music producer with connections to a major-league producer. All of these lapses would have been forgivable—perhaps—if Fame.2 managed to capture the imagination. But for all its flashy bits, YouTube references and glamorous posturing, the newly constituted Fame is a big, fat bore. And that, dear readers, is its biggest, and most unforgivable sin.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer.