Movie Review: Fame
By Matthew Huntley
October 8, 2009

We summon you, oh Mighty Lord of the Dance.

At the end of Fame, I asked myself one question: why should I care about any of these characters? The filmmakers' answer would be because they're young, talented people who will stop at nothing to achieve their dreams. Yes, that is commendable, but to care about characters, you must feel like you know them or can at least identify with their struggles. That's one crucial element missing from Fame, which is mostly a formulaic high school drama.

The movie is so quick and fragmented that I couldn't find a single person in it with whom to invest my interest or attach my emotion. It paints a superficial world for its young cast, who make up a group of diverse students at the High School of Performing Arts in New York City. The movie wants so badly to fit in all avenues of show business—dancing, singing, acting, filmmaking, instrumentation — that it's willing to sacrifice any one connection we might have established with them.

Perhaps the movie is too short. You can't very well expect to cover the entire high school career of ten students in 105 minutes. I recently watched Robert Altman's Nashville for the first time, another movie that contains several protagonists, but it runs for nearly three hours (and it probably could have run even longer). Altman's film follows 24 people, each uniquely affected by the country music scene. By the end, we feel the hard and raw effects such an industry has on them. We don't get that same feeling with Fame, which is more collection of disconnected clips.
I respect the movie for attempting to document the ups and downs, good times and bad of students wanting to perform for a living, and I liked how it shows some of the harsh realities that come with such a dream, but in the end, the movie only attempts to document such a lifestyle. It doesn't actually document anything. I didn't walk away from Fame feeling like I learned anything insightful about show business or being young and enrolled in a school specifically geared toward it.

Director Kevin Tancharoen gives us plenty of footage of the kids rehearsing and creating art, but at no point did I really sense their pressures or anxieties. In other words, I was never put in their shoes. One movie that got this right was Gross Anatomy, with Matthew Modine and Daphne Zuniga as medical students who are told they'll have to read 3,500 pages a week, attend round-the-clock lectures and laboratory sessions, and find time to eat and sleep, if they want to become doctors. That movie really got us to empathize with its characters and we experienced their same fears and consternations. We also got a sense of what it's like to be a med student.
With Fame, we don't get a sense of what it's like to be an actor, singer or dancer. The problem is there are so many different stories going on at once that we don't become immersed in any one the students' lives, and so we're not affected when good things or bad things happen to them. In fact, we hardly feel like we know them. Instead, we're subjected to the same old conventions, with the know-it-all teachers (Kelsey Grammer, Bebe Neuwirth, Charles S. Dutton, Megan Mullally) delivering positive messages and the strict parents forbidding their talented children from performing the way they want. The movie even ends with the cliché about believing in yourself and chasing after your dream, etc. We've heard it all before.

Another problem is the acting. With the exception of Naturi Naughton as a rising hip hot singer, the kids aren't much of actors. A friend told me they're probably real-life performers who were recruited to act, when in fact it should have been the other way around.

I haven't seen the original Fame (1980) or the TV series, but I have a feeling an episodic version worked better for this type of material. It probably gave audiences the chance to see the characters learn and grow over time, which is more suitable for a high school drama. Remake or not, this updated version of Fame just isn't necessary and we don't know any more about its subject matter coming out than we did going in.