Fame (1980): Alan Parker’s Inventive, Dramatic Musical, with Ensemble headed by Irene Cara

A charming musical film about life in New York’s High School of Performing Arts, Fame centers on showbusiness as a process, from auditions through rehearsals all the way to graduation.


Theatrical release poster

Director Alan Parker and screenwriter Christopher Gore have reinvented the musical movie genre effectively, in a way that speaks directly and emotionally to youngsters today.

The plotline is deliberately fractured, and the movie may be too episodic–by necessity.  However, the entire, large ensemble of performers, including Irene Cara and Laura Dean, are all endearing, their personal and public struggles creditable, and some of the songs both highly melodic and dramatically compelling.

MGM released Fame using a platform technique which involved opening the film in several cities before releasing it nationwide. The film grossed over $42 million worldwide against a production budget of $8.5 million.

It initially received a mixed response from reviewers who praised the music, but criticized the dramatic tone, pacing and direction.  Nonetheless, over the years, the movie has been reappraised over the years and is now considered an original dramatic musical, doing for the big screen what the 1976 stage production “A Chorus Line” did for the theater.

The film received several awards and nominations, including two Academy Awards for Best Original Song (“Fame”) and Best Original Score.

Its huge commercial success spawned a media franchise encompassing several television series, stage musicals and a remake released in 2009.


In New York City in the late 1970s, a group of teenagers audition to study at the High School of Performing Arts, where they are sorted into three departments: Drama, Music, and Dance.

We meet in the Drama department Montgomery MacNeil, a closeted homosexual; Doris Finsecker, a shy Jewish girl; and Ralph Garci, who succeeds after failed auditions for Music and Dance.

Members of the Music department are: Bruno Martelli, an aspiring keyboardist whose electronic equipment horrifies Mr. Shorofsky, a conservative music teacher.

Lisa Monroe is in Dance department, despite no interest in the subject.

Coco Hernandez is accepted in all three departments because of her all-around talent.

Leroy Johnson goes to the school, performing as part of a dance routine for an auditioning friend, but the dance teachers are more impressed by his talents than his friend’s.

The story spans three intense years of training, self-doubts, criticism, and of course coming of age and coming out.

Freshman year

The students learn in the first day of classes that academics are weighed equally with performance.

Doris becomes overwhelmed by the energy and spontaneity of the other students (“Hot Lunch Jam”).

She befriends Montgomery, but worries she is too ordinary vis-a-vis the colorful personalities of the other students.

Coco tries to convince Bruno to book performing gigs with her. Leroy clashes with English teacher Mrs. Sherwood over his refusal to do homework. It’s later revealed he is illiterate.

Bruno and his father argue over his reluctance to play electronic music publicly.

Miss Berg, the school’s Dance teacher, warns Lisa she is not working hard enough.

Michael, a graduating senior who wins prestigious scholarship, tells Doris the William Morris Agency is sending him out for auditions for TV pilots.

Sophomore Year

An outsider, new student named Hilary van Doren, joins the  Dance department and becomes romantically involved with Leroy.

Bruno and Mr. Shorofsky debate the merits of traditional orchestras versus synthesized instruments.

Bruno’s father plays his music (“Fame”) outside the school, inspiring the students to dance in the streets.

As acting exercise, the students are asked to recreate painful memory.

Montgomery, realizing he’s homosexual, comes out in front of his classmates; Doris relates humiliation when forced by her stage mother to sing at a child’s birthday party; Ralph tells of learning about the death of his idol Freddie Prinze.

Miss Berg drops Lisa from the Dance program. After  considering suicide in a New York Subway station, Lisa drops her dance clothes on the tracks and joins the Drama department.

Junior Year

Ralph and Doris feel mutual attraction, but their intimacy leaves Montgomery excluded. Hilary brings Leroy home, to the shock of her father and stepmother.

Ralph’s young sister is attacked by a junkie and Ralph lashes out at his mother’s attempts to comfort the child by taking her to  local Catholic church, instead of a doctor.

Doris questions her Jewish upbringing, changing her name to “Dominique DuPont” and straining the relationship with her mother.

During late-night showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the 8th Street Playhouse, Ralph encourages Doris to smoke marijuana. Intoxicated, Doris takes part in the stage show during the film’s “Time Warp” number. The next day, she realizes that as an actress she can put on any personality she wants, but is sobered upon running into Michael, a struggling actor who waits tables.

Senior Year

Ralph performs comedy at “Catch a Rising Star,” where he garners initial success, but falls into hard-party lifestyle which upsets Doris. Given a prime spot at another comedy club, he bombs after clashing with Doris and Montgomery over his new lifestyle. Disgusted with himself, Ralph believes his career is over, but is comforted by Montgomery, who tells him that failure is a part of the business.

Hilary, now pregnant, plans to have abortion and move to California to join the San Francisco Ballet company. Coco is approached in a diner by a man claiming to be a director; she naïvely goes to his apartment for screen test, but it turns out he is an amateur pornographic director. He manipulates her into taking her shirt off, and films her, while she’s sobbing.

Leroy is offered a position in Alvin Ailey’s dance company, but must graduate first in order to be accepted. After failing, he confronts a grieving Mrs. Sherwood outside her husband’s hospital room. But realizing she has her own problems, he ends up comforting her.

During graduation, the students showcase their talents by performing an original song (“I Sing the Body Electric”). The opening lines are sung by Lisa, Coco, and Montgomery.

Intercut with the performance are scenes of Leroy dancing and Bruno playing with a rock band.

Irene Cara as Coco Hernandez – Drama, Music and Dance
Lee Curreri as Bruno Martelli – Music
Laura Dean as Lisa Monroe – Dance
Antonia Franceschi as Hilary Van Doren – Dance
Paul McCrane as Montgomery MacNeil – Drama
Barry Miller as Ralph Garci/Raul Garcia – Drama
Gene Anthony Ray as Leroy Johnson – Dance
Maureen Teefy as Doris Finsecker – Drama
Albert Hague as Mr. Shorofsky – Music
Anne Meara as Mrs. Sherwood – English
Joanna Merlin as Ms. Berg – Dance
Jim Moody as Mr. Farrell – Drama
Debbie Allen as Lydia – Dance
Eddie Barth as Angelo Martelli, Bruno’s father
Boyd Gaines as Michael
Tresa Hughes as Naomi Finsecker, Doris’s mother
Steve Inwood as François Lafete
Richard Belzer as Catch a Rising Star M.C.
Bill Britten as Mr. England
Isaac Mizrahi as Touchstone
Sal Piro as Rocky Horror M.C.
Michael DeLorenzo as Principal dancer
Meg Tilly as Principal dancer

Director Alan Parker and screenwriter Christopher Gore have rein



Directed by Alan Parker
Written by Christopher Gore
Produced by David De Silva and Alan Marshall

Edited by Gerry Hambling
Music by Michael Gore

Production company: MGM

Distributed by United Artists; Cinema International Corporation (International)

Release date: May 12, 1980 (premiere, Ziegfeld Theatre); May 16, 1980 (US)

Running time: 133 minutes
Budget $8.5 million
Box office $42 million

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 6

Screenplay (Original): Christopher Gore

Song (Original): “Fame,” music by Michael Gore, lyrics by Dean Pitchford

Score (Original): Michael Gore

Sound: Michael Kohut, Aaron Rochin, Jay M. Harding, and Chris Newman

Film Editing: Gerry Hambling

Song (Original): “Out Here on My Own,” music by Michael Gore; lyrics by Lesley Gore

Oscar Awards: 1

Song: “Fame”

Oscar Context:

In 1980, Bo Goldman won the Screenplay Oscar for “Melvyn and Howard,” Thelma Schoonmaker the Editing Oscar for “Raging Bull,” and “The Empire Strikes Back,” received the Sound Oscar.