I'm Gonna Make it to Heaven -- Where the Clouds Are Illuminated by Flourescent Bulbs!
Now comfortably at home, and in front of my computer, it’d be easy to bare my cynical claws, and tear into the 2009 version of Fame, like Edward Cullen into a headboard (that’s Stephenie Meyer-speak for a hate fuck, I believe). It’s more processed than a Linsday Lohan album, and shinier than an airbrushed Britney Spears thigh, and it’s got the hollow soul of a Taylor Swift song. But like Robert Pattinson’s mussed hair, it’s meticulously put together, as though stamped onto the screen by the robotic arm of Nickelodeon.
But in the moment, trapped in front of a giant screen, you’re almost paralyzed by the earnest fervor of Fame — putting it down would be like booing a junior-high production of Grease, or catcalling at a toddler beauty contest. It’s just so intensely, cloyingly, painfully sincere that you kind of just want to hug the cast and hide them from the wedgie mob. Those poor, naive, bright-eyed teenagers, whose own parents must have spent thousands of dollars and countless hours of instruction, of acting and dancing, of modeling classes, and of voice lessons, so that they could one day get their big break: Being cast in 2009’s most sanitized, whitebread film. Fame: I’m 17 and My Career is Already Over!
I have little memory of the original Fame. I was five when it was released, and my only recollection of it was my gay father’s adoration for it. That man loved Fame, but then again, he also loved Jeremy Jordan and Kirk Cameron, so there’s not much accounting for taste. Nevertheless, I suspect that Alan Parker’s original had some grit, some passion, and maybe a little seediness. The difference between the original version and 2009’s is as stark as the difference between Times Square then and now. The original might have given you the clap, but this one is the cinematic equivalent of a Dave and Buster’s t-shirt.
Fame follows a group of kids from audition day through all four years of class at the School of Performing Arts. There’s a promising ballet dancer who never achieves his promise; there’s a classically trained pianist who just wants to sing hip-hop, if only it weren’t for her authoritarian father; there’s a laid back John Mayer douche who hooks up with an uptight performance bookworm; there’s a Disneyfied hipster who wants to direct; a Brooklyn kid by way of Nickelodeon who wants to produce albums; a hot-blonde dancer with about three lines of dialogue; an Asian cutie who quits to join “Sesame Street,” and a clean-cut African American rapper who refuses to own his ghetto past. Not an actor among the group is anyone of any note, except for perhaps Kay Panabaker, who has been appearing in guest roles on television since she was 12.
Then there are the teachers, the people you know: Kelsey Grammar is the piano teacher; Charles Dutton the acting teacher; Megan Mullally is the voice teacher; Bebe Neuwirth is the ballet intructor; and Debbie Allen is the dean of the school. Combined, their screentime amounts to no more than seven or eight minutes in the entire film,
But then again, no one really get much time on screen. Even at a too-long hour and 48 minutes, Fame has to track all four years of ten or so high school students, while leaving enough runtime for the occasional and lifeless song-and-dance number. There are five or six Disney movies coursing through Fame, but not a one of them is fleshed out to any degree. Director Kevin Tancharoen has to rely mostly on stereotypes to develop his back stories, and even for a bad cross between High School Musical and Dead Poets Society-lite, there’s little chance to develop any momentum. Fame just aimlessly drifts from one well-choreographed number to the next, arriving finally at the high notes, so perfectly in tune you’d think that they were manufactured in a machine. And for all I know, they may have been — the CGI version of singing voices.
Still, your grandmother will love Fame. It’s well-intentioned, and perfect, if you’re an aspiring 11-year-old aiming for a career in the arts who lacks self-awareness or talent. It’s heart is on its sleeve, and even though the heart came out of a Little Debbie box in a suburban grocery store, you’d still be hard pressed to smash it. Who knows what damage those chemicals could do to your fist.