It would be easy for Fame to take the path of least resistance and do yet another faux "gritty", lightweight, heavy on the new style of urban dancing "Dance Movie" that's been done, really, to death. Perhaps the happiest
Fame (the original) gets a lot of credit - more than I think it needs - for what it was, a musical at a time when the musical form seemed especially dead. The crush of seventies realism, the generally grim economic times, and the faltering of American cinema had all combined to make the idea of singing, dancing, cheerful shows quite passe. In some sense, the musical has never entirely recovered... though it has, I think, begun to adapt to the realities of leaving the old "showtune" ethos behind and embraced the rock - and music video - eras.
The orginal Fame was a key part of that; by focusing on the Performing Arts High School of Manhattan, the performances could grow, organically, from the material... and not lose the sense of being grounded in the reality of urban life. But that grounding, to me anyway, was often unnecessarily intense and negative, meant to give us a sense that performing was really these kids only moment of escape... but denying the essential thrill of getting to do what you love, and love what you do, for its own sake. Not every story needs sad punctuation.
Urban life isn't all harsh realities and downbeat moments and Fame, now, adapts well to the changed notion of modern urban existence. Less grim, less negative, Fame still presents a unique, diverse notion of the passion to perform, grounded in reality, but given, this time, a chance to soar. Watch it fly.
The trajectory of Fame remains the same - we follow a group of eager kids from start (the audition process) to finish (the celebratory graduation performance); in between we are treated to the moments of testing and maturation along the way.
Unlike many of the urban dance movies, Fame doesn't make one (usually studly, male or female) performer the focus, nor is it the "I'm a pole dancer/street hustler who wants to study ballet!" absurdity often on display (a reminder that Fame and Flashdance sit as bookends of opposition in the early eighties). These are serious kids, with serious talent, and the eager unknowns (or barely knowns) playing them represent a more diverse swath than is usually presented (the film also benefits mightily from the fact that, given the focus these kids have, racial tensions are much less of an issue than in the real world).
Although we get a set of "types" - the earnest drama student, the easygoing singer, the forceful dancer - nothing here is easy stereotypes. Fame is a reminder that public school in New York cuts across class boundaries and easy definitions - and so we get a piano prodigy of an upscale black family, a dancer from the Upper East Side as well as a kid who sees acting as his way out of the hood. The challenges they face are not generalized, nor simple.
Moreover, unlike many recent efforts, Fame focuses on the interplay between teachers and students, and much of the firepower on display comes from the faculty cameos - Bebe Neuwirth as the hardass dance instructor, Kelsey Grammer as the music teacher, Megan Mulalley as goodhearted voice instructor, Charles Dutton teaching acting - all well chosen and effective. Even Debbie Allen manages to return, now as the Principal.
By no means perfect, Fame is still immensely satisfying - more so, perhaps, given that the balance between a challenging life and the joy of performing seems more weighted towards enjoying the talents on display. Still, not every story works fully - the rich girl dancer (Kherington Payne, clearly a stunning dancer) is unsympathetic, and the "out of the hood" acting story is a little rote (though Dutton lifts the material as you would expect)... and things occasionally veer into melodrama. But on the whole, things zip along terrifically well, and all the results are fully earned. Even the film's minor accomplishments - like managing to keep its performances in actual, city stage spaces (as opposed to the usual trend of finale numbers that suddenly take place as no staged number ever could - the list is endless... remember Center Stage?) - are a credit to both living the fantasy, but keeping things real.
Much of the credit here seems to go to Allison Burnett, who has adapted the original screenplay of Christopher Gore with sensitivity and smarts. New director Kevin Tancharoen comes to this from dance and music videos, which shows in his fast pacing and his especially well put together dance sequences. It's a challenge to keep an ensemble this large in focus, and leave the viewer wanting more... Tanchareon does both. At its best, Fame feels like the city, school year side of the film Camp, which took a similart premise - the kids who attend performing arts summer camp in upstate New York - and didn't take the easy route either. If Fame seems to lack some of the "edginess" of both its predecessor and Camp (that's especially true of the soft pedaled, blink and you miss it allusions to gay students), it still manages to present a more realistic notion of the work of performing and life in the urban landscape than most anything else out there, underlining that Step Up was indeed more Flashdance than Fame all along. It's nice to be reminded of what we've been missing... and it could, indeed, make you forget the rest.