Sean Sweeney 11/19/2013
British director Alan Parker’s third film, the high school musical Fame, has spawned a television series, a musical play, and a remake, not to mention inspiring reality competitions, the TV show Glee and other assorted bores about singing and dancing teenagers. What’s been forgotten is Fame works best as a gritty New York drama about teenage life in 1980. Parker, having just come off shooting the harrowing Turkish prison drama, Midnight Express, is no dance choreographer turned director. He’s a realist. Parker seems to be more inspired by the social realism of his countrymen Ken Loach and Alan Clarke rather than the Hollywood musical style of Busby Berkeley. He originally came out of television advertising and is often associated with popular English filmmakers of his generation like Adrian Lyne, Hugh Hudson, Ridley Scott and Tony Scott, who all started off in commercials and brought a shiny sheen to their films in the eighties. Although much of their work in that period (including Parker's) looks like champagne ads, Fame still resembles the unpolished look of seventies docudramas over the more purified work that followed. Fame is also one of the better films to casually capture the multicultural urban youth vibe of the times, unlike the John Hughes teenage whitewash that would come to dominate the eighties.
Fame depicts the lives of seemingly random students at New York’s School of the Performing Arts, from auditioning freshmen to upperclassmen. Ralph Garcia (Barry Miller of Saturday Night Fever) is a tortured Puerto Rican actor/stand-up comedian who worships comic actor Freddie Prinze and takes up some dangerously bad habits. The ambitious Coco Hernandez, played by singer Irene Cara (the original Sparkle), is a triple threat in acting, singing and dancing. Unlike her character Coco, Cara was never really able to capitalize on the attention Fame brought, although later she sang the hit theme to Flashdance. Bruno Martelli (Lee Curreri) is an obvious composing genius and his cab driver father will certainly tell anyone who will listen. Leroy (Gene Anthony Ray) only auditioned to help his girlfriend get in, but when the impressed dance instructors take an interest in his raw talent over her, he becomes the school's resident rebel. Even though her pushy stage mother believes in her, Doris (Maureen Teefy) may be a little too insecure for the competition. Speaking of insecure, acting student Montgomery, played by Paul McCrane (who would later appear as a great creep in RoboCop), is a wreck until he finally confronts his homosexuality. When the beautiful and wealthy ballerina, Hilary Van Doren (Antonia Franceschi), enters the school she inspires more competition among students.
Where most of the entertainment produced about young people dreaming of show business is trite, Fame really highlights the more unglamorous side; it may even wallow in it. Past star students are now waiters and everyone has their moments of insecurity. Poor Coco is tricked into auditioning for a porn movie and is convinced to strip on camera, even while tears spring from her eyes. There is also flunking, abortions, drugs and death. Often downright depressing, Fame is the anti-Hollywood dream in some ways. It doesn't help that, early on, an instructor preaches to the kids to work hard if you want fame. Any less shallow an advisor might suggest you work hard to be an artist, instead of just seeking fame.
Having already made the bizarro kiddy musical Bugsy Malone, Alan Parker would go on to direct the even more depressing rock musical, Pink Floyd - The Wall, and the adaption of the Broadway musical, Evita. While Evita is almost an Operetta with the dialogue sung, Fame has a more realistic approach. Sometimes, as in real life, when someone writes a song they sit at a piano to sing it. A highlight in the film is Irene Cara singing the wonderful "Out Here on My Own." Other times the kids do break into spontaneous singing, as with "Hot Lunch Jam" or the title song "Fame," but it’s not done as a fantasy like most musicals. It's presented as a realistic moment, which helps a non-musical fan like me appreciate it more. There is no Andy Hardy here saying, “Let’s put on a show.” These kids look and feel like real New York kids. Instead of following Fame’s gritty lead, all the rip-offs and knock-offs that followed unfortunately seem to have gone in the opposite direction, choosing cuteness over truth. That may explain why they are all forgotten. Even after the nonstop inundation of singing kids we've since been forced to live through, the original Fame still manages to hold up and even gets more striking with age.
Fame won two Oscars for Best Original Song for "Fame" and Best Original Score. It was nominated for an additional four Oscars: Best Film Editing, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound, and Best Original Song for "Out Here On My Own."
- Cast: Alan Parker
- Label: Warner Bros.
- Catalogue #: 3000023166