In an early scene in Fame, director Kevin Tancharoen’s remake of the Oscar-winning film from 1980, students who have made the cut for entrance into the highly selective New York City High School of Performing Arts assemble for an orientation session. The school’s principal admonishes them to forget fame: What they need is to learn discipline and dedication to a craft. Of course, hard work alone will not produce excellence; that requires a fusion of passion and discipline. Unfortunately, that’s a lesson the filmmakers have entirely neglected; the result is a film that has neither passion nor discipline.
Like the original, this version of Fame has an episodic structure. It covers a number of students over a four-year period. But the older film managed to invest the characters with an emotional resonance that engendered audience identification with them. In the remake, none of the characters stands out, and the dramatic moments are emotionally empty. The original held a loose plot together; the new one is just sloppy and disjointed. It pales by comparison not only with the original but also with recent mediocre teen films such as High School Musical and Bandslam.
The big dramas here all feel contrived. There is a black student, Malik (Collins Pennie), who brims with rage. It turns out that his father left the family, his sister was murdered, and his mother sees his pursuit of singing as impractical. During his first year at the school, Malik gives a speech about his sister’s death but leaves unstated until the very end his relationship with the murdered girl. His teacher, Mr. Dowd (Charles S. Dutton), challenges him to express his deepest emotions, to tell the class not just what happened but how he felt about it. Then, toward the end of the film, in a scene set during the group’s senior year, Dowd asks Malik about his father. How credible is it that a teacher who is so personally involved with his students and who sees them every day would wait three years to ask this question?
Of course, the final segments have to include large moments. One student loses the money he had secured from his father for his film project; another nearly attempts suicide after realizing that his dreams will not come true; another gets hit on by an opportunistic older actor and almost loses her true love because of it. None of it matters.
Kelsey Grammer plays a fastidious piano teacher. When one exuberant young musician offers an extemporaneous interpretation of Bach, he interrupts, “The only thing you can bring to Bach is respect. Play it as written. ” When the student cites Bach’s own departure from his predecessors, Grammer tartly promises an apology if and when the student’s music stands the test of hundreds of years. Because Grammer’s character is one-sided, merely exacting, his gifts are wasted in this film, as are those of Bebe Neuwirth, who plays dance instructor Lynn Kraft. In fact, seeing the two of them in this film may make you wish you’d stayed home and watched a rerun of Cheers.
The film’s defects are embodied in the character of Jenny (Kay Panabaker), a talented, industrious, and overly self-conscious student with dreams of a career as a singer and actress. She has the earnestness of a Hermione Granger without any of her personality. Jenny’s struggles to release her inner creative genius take center stage for a significant portion of the film, as does her off-on-off-on relationship with the affable and talented Kevin (Paul McGill). But she is just dull, and their relationship is manufactured melodrama.
The chief reason for the success of the original film — not a great film but a memorable one — was the music. It won Academy Awards for best original score and best original song. The title song from the original film appears here only as the credits roll; the big musical finale in the new film is a song whose chorus is “Choose to succeed. ” The difference between the desire for immortality through art (“I want to live forever”) and the self-help philosophy “Choose to succeed” marks the distance between these two films. What matters here is unctuous emotion. In a final exchange with his teacher, Malik cynically asserts, “Nobody cares,” to which Dowd earnestly responds, “I do. ” Audience reaction to Fame will likely confirm Malik’s bleak view.
– Thomas S. Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is the author of Shows about Nothing.