‘Fame:’ People will see this and cry — but for all the wrong reasons
1.5 out of 5 stars
With Megan Mullally, Kelsey Grammer, Asher Book, Naturi Naughton. Rated PG. 105 mins.
Opens today in wide release.
It’s rare that I leave a movie theater angry. Sure, I’ve been known to update my Facebook status to "Love Happens: 109 minutes of my life I’ll never get back," or "Swine Flu vs. Land of the Lost? I’ll take the H1N1, thank you very much." But I’m usually only pretend mad.
Instead there I was, feeling downright punch-the-film-critic-next-to-me pissed.
The topic of tomorrow’s anger management session? The remake of Fame.
After the 1980 movie, two television series, a couple of off-off-Broadway musicals and a reality TV competition all sharing the same four-letter name, we get screenwriter Allison Burnett’s interpretation, a hodgepodge of character types and iconic scenes that never stray too far from the familiar, but just enough to be completely annoying.
Subway Suicide Fakeout? Yep, except now the jilted dancer’s a guy.
Sleazy Screen Test Moment? Check! Only this time, there’s not an ounce of the heartbreak or humiliation that Irene Cara’s Coco endured 30 years ago.
Spontaneous Lunchroom Musical Number? Amateur Night Where a Student Wows the Crowd? Endless Opening Audition Montage? Yes, yes, yes.
In fact, rather than creating an entirely new chapter in the fictional history of the real-life Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York, Burnett delivers cinematic sloppy seconds. Where Fame 1.0 came across as progressive and inspiring, this version is downright conservative and old-fashioned.
It all makes me wonder if "Allison Burnett" is a pseudonym behind which an Ann Coulter or Sarah Palin is hiding in order to secretly push her anti-gay propaganda. I mean, short of spooning between Liza with a Z and Barbra with a Nose, what could be gayer than a movie about a performing arts high school?
Yet save for a mockable audition scene of a boy flamboyantly singing "All That Jazz" from Chicago and a male dancer whose apparent gayness is never confirmed, this is about as straight as a basket of Hooters hot wings. Even a scene set inside legendary Lucky Cheng’s only shows a female impersonator for a split second in the background.
Rather than jump on the Conspiracy Theory Express, though, perhaps gay plotlines aren’t as controversial or groundbreaking as they used to be. Maybe treating gay characters and drag-queen restaurants matter-of-factly is, in truth, more progressive. But that’s probably giving too much credit to what feels like a concentrated effort to avoid any meaningful representation of homosexuality.
But let’s not get off track. With few exceptions, there’s nothing redeeming about this Fame, even without comparing it to the 1980 version (which I watched for the first time the night before the remake screened, so I don’t have some soft spot for the original).
A faculty of Must-See TV vets (Kelsey Grammer, Megan Mullally, Bebe Neuwirth) can’t provide enough wattage to save this dim production. Even Debbie Allen, an original cast member reincarnating as the school’s principal (but not playing the same character) to milk the franchise for one last hurrah, does nothing but fulfill every remake’s unwritten obligation to remind nostalgic fans of the usually superior original. Like Didi Conn’s return as Frenchy in Grease 2, Allen’s appearance just makes us sad for her.
There are breakout performances among the unknown cast of students. Andrew Shue look-alike Asher Book sings in a heart-melting tenor with boy-next-door charm, and Kherington Payne dances her two-tone-tights ass off.
Naturi Naughton steals the show as a classical pianist turned hip-hop singer who suffers the injustices of a stern-father subplot left over from the 1950s while struggling to find her true self. Not since Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls has a singing performance left me nearly breathless. I couldn’t wait for her to finally belt out the iconic "I’m Gonna Live Forever" lyrics to the title song, but in one of the biggest slaps-in-the-face, the song is absent until the abysmal closing credits. By then, who gives a damn if they learn how to fly (high!), make it to heaven. This movie sure doesn’t light up the sky like a flame so much as crash and burn. •
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 24, 2009.