When Alan Parker directed Fame in 1980, he had already spent twenty years writing ad copy, then television commercials, then directing them, then writing movies, then directing them. His confidence and experience is evident throughout the musical—in the brevity and playfulness of the opening audition sequence; the way the performance pieces double as character development; the presentation of New York as a city of yellow taxicabs and neon red signs, subway stations and high-rise apartments, artists and con artists.
The remake, three decades on, is still the story of a handful of students at a cutthroat New York performing arts high school, told in five acts—auditions plus four academic years. Although the characters are reinvented, much remains the same—heartbreak, rejection and fatigue alongside the exhilaration of performance. But where the original slowly compelled you to accept its motley gang of graduates, this version plays like a collection of music videos—perhaps because the man in charge, Kevin Tancharoen, is so young, he’s barely a man at all.
Tancharoen, now 23, parlayed his teenage talent for choreography into video collaborations with MTV darlings Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Jesssica Simpson. His immersion in the world of video pop landed him—prematurely, it turns out—in the director’s chair for Fame.
The result is adolescent—lots of style with scant substance. Given his roots, it’s no surprise that the dancing looks incredible, as freshly ripened bodies writhe, spin and jive in synchrony. Tancharoen places his camera low, so when feet leave the parquet floor, they soar. And every so often, a moment of slow-motion grants the oldest and sturdiest cinematic pleasure—the human body in flight.
But Tancharoen’s Fame remains empty—his Big Apple has no core of humanity, his high school no ring of authenticity. The students look less like post-pubescent New Yorkers and more like the cast of High School Musical. The original, made six years before Tancharoen was born, created a environment where English class makes Leroy hurl his fist through a glass window, where Hilary has an abortion to preserve her ballerina body, and where Coco takes off her clothes because she has no choice. It was rated R, for realism.
Tancharoen, and scribe Allison Burnett, by contrast, present a sanitized PG-13 world without strong language or strong leads, a launching pad for a franchise to compete with Miley Cyrus. Fame’s casting of two black actors—Naturi Naughton and Collins Pennie—and two white ones—Kay Panabaker and Asher Book—is all about capturing the widest demographic in Obama’s America. MGM, the studio behind the remake, has been struggling to revive its properties, relaunching James Bond, the Pink Panther and Rocky Balboa in 2006, Fame this year, and Robocop in 2011.
But in their mad scramble to make money and move on, Tancharoen, Burnett and MGM forgot the whole point of Fame—you have to earn it. If you have $600, stay at home and buy the original on DVD from Amazon.com.