Thursday, September 24, 2009

Learn How To Fly With Fame

A reinvention of the original Oscar-winning hit film, Fame follows a talented group of dancers, singers, actors, and artists over four years at the New York City High School of Performing Arts, a diverse, creative powerhouse where students from all walks of life are given a chance to live out their dreams and achieve real and lasting fame...the kind that comes only from talent, dedication, and hard work. In an incredibly competitive atmosphere, plagued by self-doubt, each student’s passion will be put to the test. In addition to their artistic goals, they have to deal with everything else that goes along with high school, a tumultuous time full of schoolwork, deep friendships, budding romance, and self-discovery. As each student strives for his or her moment in the spotlight, they’ll discover who among them has the innate talent and necessary discipline to succeed. With the love and support of their friends and fellow artists, they’ll find out who amongst them will achieve Fame.

The "reinvention" of the 1980 high school musical Fame — please, people, don't call it a remake — stays faithful to the spirit and structure of Alan Parker's original while sucking out all the raciness. There's no nudity in this PG-rated version, no one gets an abortion. No one even lights a single cigarette. So no, it's not exactly the most realistic depiction of modern high-school life. But at the same time, dancer and choreographer Kevin Tancharoen, making his feature directing debut, doesn't turn "Fame" into the kind of slick, overly edited eye candy you might expect. It's stylized, yes, and it movies really fluidly while still maintaining some urban grittiness. And in a world where people aspire for instant recognition by making idiots of themselves on reality TV, there's still something appealing about the idea of working hard for artistic glory — potentially failing and suffering rejection, but persevering nonetheless. Starting with Debbie Allen's famous "you got big dreams, you want fame" speech over the opening titles, Fame follows a group of aspiring singers, dancers, actors and musicians from their auditions for New York's competitive High School of Performing Arts until their graduation four years later. Among the familiar types are Denise (Naturi Naughton), a classically trained pianist who longs to branch out creatively; good-looking Marco (Asher Book), who sings like Justin Timberlake; aspiring actress Jenny (Kay Panabaker), who's too self-conscious; the privileged dancer Alice (Kherington Payne); the shticky wannabe film director Neil (Paul Iacono); and the misunderstood actor-rapper Malik (Collins Pennie). Among the faculty are Charles S. Dutton as the acting teacher helping his students hone their craft, Kelsey Grammer as the stern but fair piano teacher and Bebe Neuwirth, formidable as always, as a dance instructor. (Frasier and Lilith don't have any scenes together, sadly.) Megan Mullally plays a perky voice coach and Allen herself, in all of two scenes, appears as the school's principal. Some of these kids are obviously going to make it — they're going to live forever, as the song goes — and some aren't. It's pretty easy to figure out. Similarly, you can see some of the plot developments coming from a mile away in Allison Burnett's script, even if you've never seen the original. The young cast attending the fictional New York High School of Performing Arts is uniformly great. They're all plugged into the collective notion of entertaining, rising to the challenge of a solo -- Payne's dance sequence is a beautiful escape -- yet finding ways to stand out when collaborating as an ensemble (in the graduation scene, for instance). You just know that the moment Denise's strict parents see her on stage, singing in a way they never knew she could, they'll achieve a newfound appreciation for her talent.

Naughton, who played Lil' Kim in "Notorious," also sings the hell out of "Out Here on My Own," the only song carried over from the original. ("Fame" plays over the closing credits.) And understandably, given Tancharoen's background, the dance scenes dazzle. The mousey Jenny will flourish by senior year, the keyboard player who hates Bach will learn to enjoy classical music, and at some point they'll all burst into spontaneous song and dance in the cafeteria. These are inescapable truisms. Familiar? Yes, but not nearly as vapid as most of the musical material out there that encourages teens to believe fame is all that matters. Because Fame trades in creativity and artistic stimulation, the left-brain functions of an ordinary screenplay -- plot, character development -- take a back seat to the high-powered singing and high-energy dancing. But the talent on screen is so impressive, you don't really mind. Fame is a front-row seat to a rousing Broadway production. It's a calling card for Tancharoen -- the right man for this particular job -- and a solid demo reel for many of the artists who should ascend to the top of the Hollywood ladder and stay there. Too many remakes flooding multiplexes are easily forgettable. Fame is one I'll remember (remember, remember…) It's not exactly a remake and that's not a bad thing. This reinvention of a classic film is brilliantly done with stellar performances that made the original so damn good. This gets a 4 on my "Go See" scale.

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