Fame (2009): Tancharoen’s Musical Remake

Recycling material (good and bad) defines the rules of the game of the New Hollywood. Latest example is “Fame,” which was first a popular 1980 Alan Parker movie, then a musical, then a TV series and a reality show; there may be novelization of the text, too!
On paper, a reboot of “Fame” for the new generation is not a bad idea. However, as blandly conceived by Allison Burnett, and poorly executed by first-time helmer Kevin Tancharoen, this “Fame” feels like a splashy and superficial flick, put together quickly and mechanically rather than methodically or organically.
Opening Friday, “Fame” is destined for a short life theatrically and slightly longer life in ancillary markets, likely to be rented by very young viewers and perhaps by some older ones, curious to compare and contrast the two versions, which are very much products of their respective eras and zeitgeists.
The personal link between the two “Fame” pictures is provided by Debbie Allen, who was one of the students in the 1980 movie, and now appears as the school principal, albeit on with nothing much to say or to do.
Nearly 30 years have passed since Alan Parker’s “Fame,” which was nominated for six Oscars, including Original Screenplay by Christopher Gore, winning two, Original Song, “Fame,” music by Michael Gore and lyrics by Dean Pitchford, and Original Score by Gore.
Though the 1980 “Fame” is not a particularly good film, its concept was reasonably new, if not entirely fresh. However, since then, we have been subjected to Disney’s musical series “High School Musical,” and well as variety shows like “American Idol” and others, which bear thematic and structural resemblance to “Fame.”
Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, Brit Parker is a far better director than Tancharoen, a choreographer who’s a novice helmer, though his staging and shooting of the dances leave much to be desired. At least Parker had the smarts to cast his film with a group of talented actors, such as Irene Cara, Barry Miller, and Paul McCrane, and to include subplots and characters with an edge, young boys and girls struggling with their identities and social backgrounds, be they ethnic minority members or latent gays needing to come out.  Moreover, some of the sub-stories were touching and well acted, and they were linked by good production numbers, seductive dances, and melodic songs (some of which became smash hits beyond the film).
The basic format, an episodic chronicle of fresh, naïve but ambitious kids spending four years at New York’s High School of Performing Arts, is maintained–except that the social issues that had defined the characters of the first picture have been diluted.  Thus, the conflict faced by Denise (played by the gifted Nauri Naughton) is that she wants to sing whereas her more conservative parents put pressure on her to take classic piano lessons.
Jenny (Kay Panabaker) and boyfriend Marco (Asher Book) form a fighting romantic couple, based on their divergent personalities, whereas Malik (Collins Pennie) has gone through personal loss and now needs to find an outlet to express his acting and rapping.
Unlike the 1980 film, which retained an aura of authenticity and real urban grit, the new version is slick, sanitized, dumbed down musical in the mold of Disney’s series “High School Musical,” albeit without the charms of actors like Zac Efron and Vanessa Hadgens. Ironically, kids today are far more sophisticated, cynical and savvy than we were back in 1980, so to hand them such a watered down and sanitized material is doubly strange and even offensive.

Is the new “Fame” a victim of its PG Rating, or greedy goal to attract the largest possible public, that is, undemanding and indiscriminating youngsters seeking good, easy time at the movies. Does its rating (and the short attention span expected of its primary target audience) accounts for the faster tempo and shorter running time: This “Fame: is shorter by half an hour from the 1980s original (which ran over two hours)

Since most of the parts are shallow and one-dimensional, much of the effects achieved have to do with the talent, screen persona, and charisma of the individual performers.  Take Naturi Naughton, for example, a gifted, dynamic singer who excels in delivering all of her musical numbers, and may be the only breakout performer to come out of this picture. Kherington Payne, as the star student, is also good, and Collins Pennie, as an aspiring actor, is effective at conveying anger and channeling frustration into his new métier.

Of the older cast members those who play the instructors, Charles S. Dutton, Bebe Neuwith, Kelsey Grammer are all skillful actors, but they have very little to do here beyond uttering some one-line clichés.
Tancharoen lacks the talent or skill to weave the stories together in a dramatically interesting manner, and the musical sequences are edited in the fast and furious montage that has defined MTV over the past three decades.   As a result, even the good dancers have slight chances to impress with their style. Worse yet, some classic American songs, such as Gershwin’s seminal “Someone to Watch Over Me,” is inadequately staged and performed by both Jenny and Marco; what a waste of a terrific song that still resonates so strongly.
Overall, this new “Fame” lacks fluidity as an integrated musical, in which the songs promote the story, and as a dramatic narrative, in which the characters distinguish themselves from one another before forming more meaningful couples or trios.
Mrs. Angela Simmons – Debbie Allen
Mr. James Dowd – Charles S. Dutton
Mr. Martin Cranston – Kelsey Grammer
Ms. Fran Rowan – Megan Mullally
Ms. Kraft – Bebe Neuwirth
Marco – Asher Book
Rosie Martinez – Kristy Flores
Neil Baczynsky – Paul Iacono
Kevin Barrett – Paul McGill
Denise Dupree – Naturi Naughton
Jenny Garrison – Kay Panabaker
Alice Ellerton – Kherington Payne
Malik Washburn – Collins Pennie
Victor Tavares – Walter Perez
Joy – Anna Maria Perez de Tagle
An MGM release of a Lakeshore Entertainment and United Artists presentation of a Lakeshore Entertainment production.
Produced by Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi, Richard Wright, Mark Canton. Executive producers, Eric Reid, David Kern, Beth DePatie, Harley Tannenbaum.
Co-producer, Brian McNelis.
Directed by Kevin Tancharoen.
Screenplay, Allison Burnett, based on the motion picture “Fame” by Christopher Gore.
Camera, Scott Kevan.
Editor, Myron Kerstein; performance sequences edited by Fernando Villena.
Music, Mark Isham.
Production designer, Paul Eads; art director, Scott Meehan; set decorator, Cindy Carr.
Costume designer, Dayna Pink.
Sound, Steven A. Morrow; supervising sound editor/designer, Michael Babcock.
Choreographer, Marguerite Derricks.
Visual effects supervisor, James McQuaide.
Assistant director, George Bamber.
Second unit director, Eads.
Casting, Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood.
MPAA Rating: PG.
Running time: 107 Minutes.