Fame – A Review

The caption should be: "Being Pretty is All That Matters"

The caption should be: "Being Pretty is All That Matters"

I have to admit that I have some bias when it comes to performing arts movies. A prime example is that I am able to cut the dancers from “Center Stage” a lot of slack for their less than stellar acting skills, and instead focus on the intriguing and well executed choreography. Therefore I was entirely shocked that I left the 2009 remake of the 1980’s classic “Fame” with a strong desire to write the studio and demand a refund of the ticket price.

I will be more than happy to admit that the original movie “Fame” is far from a perfect movie. It is incredibly flawed, but those flaws were able to be forgiven because the movie did a lot for theatre kids everywhere. The original movie fame showed the American public some of the trials that young performers have to go through, many of which either complicate or contribute to “normal” teenage problems.  It is for this reason you can get over a number of issues in the original film, like the fact that many of the characters issued are never resolved. I think many of us are still wondering what happened to Coco (Irene Cara’s character) after she was filmed topless by that scary guy. The original movie doesn’t answer this, and many other questions, but all of that can be forgiven to some degree thanks to the incredible performances the movie has, and the inspiring message it leaves audiences with. The original Fame seemed to shout from the rooftops that theatre kids shouldn’t be ashamed of their quirks, but rather celebrate them. It also pointed out just how hard performers, even those with incredible natural talent, have to work everyday to hone their craft into something which would allow them to make it in this world.

The new incarnation of this film is the saddest celebration of mediocrity that I have ever seen in a film to date. The fact that this movie was made with an estimated budget of $25 million dollars is absolutely astounding, and I have to wonder whether or not they could have spent a little more of their budget to find actors with talent. Truly the main failure of this show lies in the fact that none of the main characters are very talented in the craft they are supposed to be, and while they may be a bit more attractive than the kids in the original, they do not succeed in getting by on their looks.

The best example of this particular issue is found in the characters of Jenny (Kay Panabaker) and Marco (Asher Book).These actors are relatively attractive, although certainly Kherington Payne is the best looking person in the cast, but both suffer from a great lack of talent and/or skill. This is only made more complicated by the fact that the characters perceive, and therefore suggest to the audience, that Asher Book is the golden boy of the freshman class. We see this in a scene where Jenny sings “Someone to Watch Over Me” badly, and then Megan Mullally, who is one of the best singers in the entire movie, chastises her for inability to make the audience feel the emotion in the song. She then asks Marco to sing the exact same song to show the class how it’s done. Unfortunately, the only people Marco impresses are the other actors who are being paid to pretend he is good. Asher Book’s so called impressive pipes wouldn’t get him an audition at a dive bar in Vegas, let alone anything remotely legitimate in New York. His voice is a weak, nasal, overly pop infused, insipid, throaty mess, which never improves during the four year time span the movie covers. In fact neither Jenny nor Marco seem to improve at all during their entire four years, and neither does their screen acting. Their big fight on the rooftop, whose apex ends with a weak scream of anguish from Jenny, brought for the reaction of laughter instead of empathy. Truly this moment made me wistful for the cast of Center Stage.  I am without reservation in saying that most of my visceral dislike of this film stems from the complete and utter lack of anything interesting to be found in either of these two characters or the actors who portrayed them.

The rest of the cast is not without criticism, but certainly they have small shining spots where praise is warranted. Naturi Naughton, who plays Denise Dupree, is certainly the most interesting character in the movie. She also has a very good voice, and her cover of “Out Here On My Own” from the original movie is one of the few spots of light in the movie. Unfortunately, after that incredible ballad none of the other musical numbers she is a part of does her any favors. The song in the nightclub is not vocally difficult, and reduces her to a middle of the road contender for American Idol. The graduation song is simply poorly composed, and has lyrics which made the sugary American Idol finale songs look edgy. It is sad her character peaked in the first scene we see her sing. I appreciated that she was a classical pianist with talent, and although it is not overly clear why her mother waits to long to help her stand up to her father, it is nice that at least one character’s story has a beginning, middle, and end.

Collins Pennie who played Malik did a passable job. He showed us something that many actors are familiar with. In many classes you have a talented student who has a lot of talent, but much of his reason for acting is fueled and stunted by problems he/she has in his/her life. For Malik his life had tragedies of an abandoned father, and overworked mother, and the tragic senseless loss of his younger sister. When asked how he felt about these things, Malik would shut down. If an actor is unwilling to explore his emotions in his life, his ability to portray those emotions will almost always feel as superficial. Malik is finally able to break through, without crying to give some credit to the film, thanks to a rather lovely moment between he and his acting teacher, played by Charles Dutton. Unfortunately, we are unable really appraise how this breakthrough has changed Malik, because instead of comparing his performance in another monologue, we see Malik deliver a rap, which describes his feelings about his hardships, as a prologue to the performance which is supposed to be Naturi Naughton’s big moment. The change in performance medium makes comparison impossible, so we are forced to assume he is better now than he was before.

Walter Perez, as Victor Taveras, is perhaps the strongest actor amongst the teen part of the cast. His presence on screen is real, and his character, though rarely seen, seems to actually develop over time. Unfortunately Perez’ character is poorly written. Despite being delightfully intelligent and articulate in his arguments with his teacher, played by Kelsey Grammer, he is apparently the dumbest boyfriend ever, as made evident by the fact that he had no idea that his girlfriend got into the best modern dance company in the world, because he had never heard of it. One would think the boyfriend of the best dancer in the school would know SOMETHING about that. This oversight might have been easier to forgive if we were given more time to get to know Victor.

Speaking of the “best dancer in the school”, which is played by Kherington Payne, much like the frightening assertion that Asher Book was the best voice in their class, I found it difficult to believe that Ms. Payne was the best dancer solely because she didn’t actually do very much dancing. I whole heartedly believed she was the most attractive dancer, but she was rarely featured and none of her choreography was that complicated. Her final number mainly demonstrated that she knew how to be lifted and moved around by others, which seemed to indicate that the best dancers in the school where the men moving her.

The dancing in the movie is generally not impressive, although serious props should be given to the tap dancers who presented incredible skill during their 14 seconds of screen time. The remainder of the dance numbers seemed to feature choreography which was impressive solely because it was being performed by so many dancers, rather than it involving incredibly difficult choreography. Certainly there were some moments which were absolutely wonderful, but they were normally in the middle of an extended dance number, and diminished by the fact that the number as a whole was not as impressive as pieces audiences could see in other films. It should also be noted that most of the bigger dance numbers did not feature the dancers we were supposed to believe were the good ones, but did include some of the rejects such as Kevin, played by Paul McGill.

I mention Paul McGill’s character at the end of this review for a specific reason. Kevin is a dancer, and he manages to go to the school despite having a somewhat weak audition, but over the four years at school his teacher, played by Bebe Neuwirth, is forced to tell him that despite all his hard work, he just lacks the talent to make it as a professional dancer. Mr. McGill’s portrayal of Kevin is fine, given the fact that he has about 5 minutes of screen time devoted to his entire story. The moment where he is told he isn’t going to make it, which is underscored by another vocal failure by Asher Brook, is important for one big reason. The speech applies to the complete teen cast of characters! None of them are so incredible that they would ever make it professionally, and although this movie seems to celebrate them, to anyone who knows anything about music, theatre, or dance, it would be painfully obvious that these kids simply lack the skill and technique needed to be a professional in the arts.

To prove this point we could easily compare the graduation ceremony with the karaoke performance that Megan Mullally gives towards the end of the film. Mrs. Mullally sings “You Took Advantage of Me” by Rodgers and Hart. Her song relates to her character, is beautifully emitted with a wonderfully rounded sound and supported tone, and was so good that I actually applauded in the theater after she finished. This was the only time I applauded in the movie, and with good reason. The graduation ceremony, which is the big finale of this movie, is as lame and boring as any real graduation ceremony. This is of course more disappointing since you expect to be entertained. None of the singing in the finale song is any good, and with Mullally’s example of what good singing is like, the lack of vocal ability is even more obvious. The dancing is more about having large group of people run around the stage, and although the very cool moment where a woman runs and slides on point is incredible, it is immediately ruined by a huge dance number which has as inexplicable tropical island theme.

The remake of “Fame” did not leave me wanting more, rather I simply wished there was less I had been asked to sit through. Unlike the original, the message of the remake appears to be nothing other than: Be pretty! Talent and skill are overrated and it takes to much work to obtain.

Random thoughts:

  1. The scene in the trailer where they are on a roof being blasted with water is not in the film.
  2. If the original song “Fame” is in this movie, as it claims to be, it has been remixed to a level that is completely unrecognizable.
  3. Seriously was this the best crop of actors they could find?
  4. Who do I write about asking for a refund?