Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum
I've always been a sucker for show biz movies. Funny Girl. A Star is Born (both versions). Cabaret. Chicago. And Fame, which, while not technically a show biz movie, is certainly a breaking-into-show biz movie.
I first saw Fame when I was a freshman at Emerson College in Boston where many of the students had actually attended the movie's real-life inspiration, New York's School of the Performing Arts.
Emerson itself was more or less a continuation of the high school's curriculum; people from all over the nation came there to find their show biz niche, be it in the spotlight or in production. While there, I tried out for every show I could during my first year and was cast in zero parts. Thus, I transferred to Brandeis for my junior and senior years. (In the end it was the best possible decision, and I am very happy, thank you very much.)
Still, I find myself a lifelong Fame addict. Whenever I watch it, I am transported once more back to those first months at Emerson, when I absolutely positively knew I was going to be a star one day. Or a director. Or a screenwriter. (I am, by the way, none of those, but I am very happy, thank you very much.) We all did. We all wanted to feel the warmth of those bright lights.
One of my Emerson classmates made it into Les Miserables. Another became the actress Gina Gershon. A third died of AIDS. A fourth, in my opinion the most talented of them all -- a girl who could sing beautifully, dance brilliantly, and be hilarious all at the same time dropped show biz and went to work for a large New York insurance firm.
But for each and every one of us, for those who would become famous as well as those who would not, Fame represented what we were up against: students with more or less talent than we had, the abject fear of auditioning badly, and even the fear of making it. Because: Then what? Fame didn't venture into any territory beyond high school.
It wasn't about life, but about life's mirror, high school, where competition is high, where politics is treacherous, and where real life is sometimes just a massive pain in the ass.
Directed by Alan Parker -- later, he would tackle The Commitments and Evita -- the movie is a dark, gritty, joyful chronicle of one group of students' four years at the school. The tentative actress (Maureen Teefy) with the overbearing mother. The gay actor (Paul McCrane) with an actress mother who's never around. The standup comic (Barry Miller) desperate to hide a shitty home life behind a funny act. The lazy ballerina (Lauren Dean). The brilliant ghetto dancer (Gene Anthony Ray). The singer (Irene Cara) who gets seduced by the "easy" fame of porn. And the gifted composer (Lee Curreri) whose father plays his tapes from cab-mounted speakers out on the street, giving the film one of its most exuberant numbers: As they hear the infectious music blaring, the students pour through the school's front doors and enter into an almost Dionysian dance, lost in the overtly sexual splendor of actually doing their thing in public, on the street and on the cars, their eyes mostly closed and their ears open only to the beat and the heat of the moment.
The movie has a few such scenes. Another comes earlier, when Teefy enters the school's lunchroom. At first, the students are arranged into clear-cut cliques: the actors, the dancers, the singers, the whites, the blacks, the Puerto Ricans. It almost looks like backstage at the West Side Story auditions.
Someone starts tapping on a table. Then a piano keyboard is uncovered and Curreri starts to play. Cara launches into song. And the room erupts into what amounts to a mock orgy of talent spewing forth, uncontrolled in its joy.
(Teefy's character, unable to deal with such sudden improvised brilliance, withdraws.)
In this scene and others, Fame is a study of contrasts. Dean's rich girl is contrasted with Miller's poor boy. The unplanned lunchroom and street performances with the strict rules of ballet or the learned lines and blocking of acting. The purity of the students' dreams with the virtual slovenliness of the school, a metaphor for the caked-on dirt that seems to cover most of New York City. If my Emerson experience was anything like the High School of the Performing Arts, then the movie paints a pretty accurate picture of what the school was like. It isn't the trappings that matter, for often they're as fake as the stage sets; what matters is the talent, the work.
I also love the film for its songs. There's Irene Cara's electrifying take on the title song, and then her searing anthem "Out Here On My Own." Paul McCrane, who would show up on E.R. in the 1990s as Dr. Romano, sings the ballads "Dogs in the Yard" and "Is It Okay If I Call You Mine?" under his mop of bright red curls. There's "Hot Lunch Jam," the inspired lunchroom session. And the graduation song, "I Sing the Body Electric." Dated, perhaps, but classics all.
The film is also admirable for the way it paints the relationship between the students and their teachers. Especially poignant is the series of disputes between Anne Meara's teacher and Gene Anthony Ray's ghetto dancer. All he wants is to dance, all she wants is for him to learn, despite the fact that academics won't ever come into play for him when he makes it. They bond when Meara's husband is hospitalized; at that point, their roles fall away, and all that's left is their humanness. Their embrace in the hospital waiting room is one of the film's most powerful moments.
In a way, these two characters embody the central conflict of the film: It's not about who will make it, but about the value of learning versus the value of talent. Fame is about acting lessons and English lessons, but it's also about life lessons.
To some, it's simply one of the two films that ushered in the period of leg warmers (Flashdance was the other). To me, though, Fame is a time capsule.
It makes me 18 again and reminds me of a time when my dreams were taking shape, when I had all the talent in the world, and when I knew I'd be famous one day.
This is a time when fame is pursued by so many people. Witness the explosion of reality TV and especially the American Idol phenomenon; in a way, we're watching real-life Fame happen on TV: the battle of the talented. And witness (better idea: don't witness) the Fame reality show, an Idol ripoff that does little but soil the pleasant echoes of the film. Today, to paraphrase the title song's spot-on lyrics, everyone wants to live forever. We'll see.
The Fame DVD, from Warner Home Video, includes commentaries by Alan Parker and much of the film's cast, featurettes about the film and the actual High School of the Performing Arts, and the trailer.
It's a great package that's worth picking up.
But don't stop there. The magnificent soundtrack album for Fame has been remastered and is now available in expanded form on CD, from Rhino. Included are three new tracks: a new song performed by Paul McCrane and new sing-along versions of the title song and "Out Here on My Own." A great CD of great music that's highly recommended. | July 2003
Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse. At night he works on another novel and a screenplay. Days, he writes advertising copy in Lawrenceville, NJ, where he lives with his wife and sons.
Fame didn't venture into any territory beyond high school. It wasn't about life, but about life's mirror, high school, where competition is high, where politics is treacherous, and where real life is sometimes just a massive pain in the ass.
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