Fame (1980)

Dir: Alan Parker, 1980. Starring: Irene Cara, Barry Miller, Lee Curreri, Paul McCrane, Gene Anthony Ray. Musicals.

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.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Nov 19, 2013 2:26pm

Grease

Dir: Randal Kleiser, 1978. Starring: John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Stockard Channing, Jeff Conaway. Musical.

GreaseAt the peak of the disco era, the film version of the so-so Broadway musical Grease managed to be the perfect vehicle to celebrate 1950s nostalgia while becoming an iconic relic of '70s pop culture. Since its release it has become a rite of passage for young people—a romanticized version of teen rebellion and young love. It’s surprisingly raunchy, but very funny, with great music and very energetic choreography. More then Rebel Without a Cause or Blackboard Jungle it has actually taken over as the ultimate representation of 1950s teen life. While the earlier films were made by people who were afraid of that generation’s American teenager, Grease was created to celebrate them.
 
After his breakout performance that turned him into a massive superstar in Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta was as hot as could be. Grease proved to be an almost equally popular follow-up for him (through critically it took a drubbing). In the role of Danny Zuko, high school greaser and heart throb, Travolta was able to continue to showcase his flashy dance moves and add “passable singer” to his resume. More importantly he showed his flare for light comedy. As time passes it's easier to recognize the fun Travolta was having with his own image. He's kinda a mix of Elvis and TV’s Fonzie, but much more charming than both and, though cool, much more vulnerable. (Vulnerability proved to be a staple of Travolta’s acting bag of tricks.)

Australian transplant Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) is just trying to fit in to her new Southern California school, Rydell High. Though she had ...

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jul 29, 2011 5:11pm

Saturday Night Fever

Dir: John Badham, 1922. Starring: John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney, Barry Miller, Donna Pescow. Musical.

At first glance what may appear to be a cultural relic from the disco '70s is actually a deeply sensitive star-making vehicle for the young John Travolta as a Brooklyn hot dog who is slowly realizing that everything in the world he knows - his unemployed and jealous father, his gooney Brooklyn buds, his life as the king stud on the dance floor, everything around him - is all bullshit.

Who would guess that a little script by Norman Wexler (Serpico) based on a New York Magazine article by Nik Cohn, "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," would be at the center of a cultural phenomenon? (The piece was said to be based on his reporting of real life characters he met in Brooklyn, but later it was revealed he made the whole thing up.) Everything about Saturday Night Fever became hot; Travolta’s white suit started a fashion trend, discotheques went from being an urban, ethnic or Euro trend to being found on main street in the middle of America. But hottest of all was the soundtrack, selling 20 million copies. Most was produced and performed by the Australian family band, The Bee Gees, the one time Beatles wanna-bees. The soundtrack scored them hit single after hit single, including "Staying Alive," "Night Fever," "How Deep Is Your Love," and "If I Can’t Have You" sung by Yvonne Elliman (who played Mary Magdalene in the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar).

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jul 22, 2010 3:39pm

Serpico

Dir: Sidney Lumet, 1973. Starring: AL Pacino, John Randolph, Tony Roberts. Drama.

Al Pacino played his first cop in Serpico and, by my count, would go on to do it six more times in Cruising, Sea of Love, Heat, Insomnia, Righteous Kill, and something called The Son of No One. (He’s played a criminal in twice as many films.) It’s fair to say that at the time Serpico was released there had never been an on screen cop like this one. It was Pacino’s most Dustin Hoffman-like performance (back in those days they were compared to each other, for good reason). In Serpico, Pacino seemed shorter than usual, his back was humped, his voice more nasally, and his Elliott Gould mustache early in the film grows into a full on scraggily beard. Serpico was an oddball cop who liked ballet, lived with the freaks in the Village, had a dog instead of a baby, and most weird of all, wouldn’t take a payoff. In New York that was enough to almost get you killed. 

Serpico’s story take place in the '60s, which was a time of unprecedented police brutality. In the South civil rights workers were being abused by cops. In the North racist big city cops were continually harassing black citizens which led to many major uprisings (or riots). Vietnam protesters in Chicago were faced with Gestapo tactics on national television. The film was an unflinching look at the underbelly of a police force that differed so much from the propaganda Hollywood had given us about cops on TV and films for decades. The film was based on the hard-hitting, best-selling biography of Detective Frank Serpico by Peter Maas (King of the Gypsies), with a screenplay by Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy) and Norman Wexler (Saturday Night Fever). The great New York director Sidney Lumet (Network) took over production after John G. Avildsen (Rocky) was fired. Lumet brought his signature grit to the look and, as usual, elicited truthful performances from the cast. 

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Feb 24, 2014 5:49pm
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