What would happen if you took Alan Parker's R-rated, Oscar-winning version of "Fame" and removed its soul?
You would have the 2009 version of "Fame," directed by Kevin Tancharoen and featuring much the same set-up, many of the same dynamics, indeed, the same formula but none, and I mean none, of the original film's heart, soul, substance and passion.
"Fame" goes through the motions...sometimes beautifully, sometimes with just enough style to fool you into thinking "Wow, this is an awesome remake."
Then, the scene ends and there's this empty feeling that exists where empathy, understanding, excitement and concern should exist.
In Kevin Tancharoen's reworked version of "Fame," there are 99 minutes of dancing and singing and failing and succeeding high school kids chasin' their dreams and sacrificing and sweating and suffering for their shot at fame.
The weird thing? I didn't care about any of them.
Not a single one.
I didn't care about Jenny (Kay Panabaker), the timid one who, until the film's final scene at graduation never once proved she actually had enough talent to get into the school now known as "PA," let alone enough to graduate. Her character development brought to mind that of Wendy Makkena's timid nun in "Sister Act" with a similar final "See, I can really sing!" scene.
I didn't care about Marco (Asher Book), who has been singing in his family's restaurant since he was a small tike and is likely one of the few here actually headed for fame with another Disney channel boy band. Oddly enough, Marco's the one who seemingly worked at his fame the least...sort of a contradiction given the film's "Right here's where you start payin'...in sweat" introduction, don't ya think?
I didn't even care about Malik (Collins Penie), an angry young man still brooding over childhood memories that permeate his every acting scene and rule his musical gifts. Screenwriter Allison Burnett's script spends virtually entire film lecturing Malik on getting honest about his past, courtesy of his acting instructor (Charles S. Dutton), but the big scene in which Malik supposedly lets go is a senior year rap performance during which his big revelation is that his daddy did "Crack."
As Whitney would say, "That's whack."
Then, of course, in another scene ripped straight out of "Sister Act 2," there's Denise (Naturi Naughton), the obligatory "My parents just don't understand me!" kid. While Naughton is arguably the film's most talented performer, alongside Asher Book, her character's dialogue with her father is so laughably formulaic that it becomes virtually impossible to become more than minimally involved with her character.
The adult instructors in the film, personified by Dutton, Megan Mullaly, Kelsey Grammer and principal Debbie Allen, the only leftover from the original film, are mere character sketches down to Mullaly's confessional regarding her own giving up on fame.
Therein lies the problem with the 2009 version of "Fame." Everything that this version of "Fame" does, Parker's 1980 version of "Fame" did much, much better.
Why do we need a PG-rated version, transplanted to a slightly urban West Coast high performing arts high school when the far grittier, R-rated version set in New York City's School of Performing Arts worked just fine?
Why do we need another set of characters if Burnett's not going to bother to give us a decent backstory, an intriguing story arc or even enough faux dialogue to actually give a damn about them?
As I was sitting here watching this version of "Fame," I found myself recalling both the character's and actor's names from the original "Fame" with Lee Curreri as "Bruno," Irene Cara as "Coco," Eddie Barth as "Angelo," Gene Anthony Ray as "Leroy" and the list goes on and on.
This "Fame?" Even while writing this review, I find myself having to repeatedly refer to the Internet Movie Database to remember names.
After almost 30 years, I STILL remember the characters from the Parker's "Fame." 30 minutes after screening Tancharoen's "Fame" my best recollection was "Awwww, gee. Wasn't Jenny kinda cute?"
The music in Tancharoen's "Fame" certainly has its moment, most notably Naughton's outstanding version of the original film's "Out Here On My Own," the only left over with the exception of a closing credit Naughton version of "Fame" that pales in comparison to Cara's original. Unfortunately, the remaining new tunes are largely instantly forgettable tunes even for the easily distracted "High School Musical" crowd.
More appropriate for an afternoon on the Disney Channel than on the big screen, this reworked but definitely not reimagined "Fame" is the perfect example of cinema that chooses style over substance with near disastrous results. While there are undeniably scenes in "Fame" worth watching, including a vastly under-utilized Kelsey Grammer, too much of "Fame" will only serve to remind everyone how Parker's "Fame," while flawed, was a genuinely entertaining, energized and authentic film.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic