Fame -- Film Review

Corrected: Sept 25, 2009, 3:09 PM PT

The differences between the original version of "Fame" and the splashy new production reveal a great deal about the changes in the movie business over the last three decades. Alan Parker's "Fame," released in 1980, retained some of the hallmarks of edgy movies of the '70s. Tackling subjects like racial conflict and homosexuality, it had a gritty urban flavor melded to high-powered musical numbers. The retooled version, directed by young music video wiz Kevin Tancharoen, apes "High School Musical" rather than "Mean Streets." Rated PG, it's almost laughably bland and watered-down in its desire to appeal to the widest possible audience. It won't succeed in that goal, but it has enough pizzazz to captivate undemanding tweeners.

Let's be clear. The original movie, despite its iconic stature, was no classic. The script was riddled with cliches and overheated melodramatic confrontations. Nevertheless, the energy of the young performers propelled it. While this new version retains the basic structure of following several kids over four years at New York's High School of Performing Arts, it's been diluted in almost every imaginable way. Even the Academy Award-winning title song, which became a dazzling set piece on the streets of New York, is only played over the end titles in this movie.

Parker's "Fame" had some really good actors, like Barry Miller and Paul McCrane, playing out the sometimes turgid stories of adolescent angst. The individual story lines in this picture, written by Allison Burnett, are pitifully thin. Lovers' quarrels and family conflicts are at the most primitive dramatic level, and characters have no vivid quirks. While the original movie, running 134 minutes, was criticized by some as being overlong, this is a rare film that's actually too short to do justice to the dozen prominent characters.

Given the shallow roles, there probably wasn't much the actors could do, but few of them demonstrate a strong screen presence. The standout in the cast is Naturi Naughton, a marvelous singer who nails her musical numbers. When she's performing, you get a hint of the electricity that the whole film should have had. Kherington Payne, as the star dance student, also shines, and Collins Pennie, as an embittered aspiring actor, shows a few convincing glimmers of rage. Several excellent actors -- Charles S. Dutton, Bebe Neuwirth, Kelsey Grammer -- are wasted as the teachers. Debbie Allen, who played a teacher in the original movie, has graduated to the role of school principal, but she has almost nothing to do.

Tancharoen doesn't weave the stories together gracefully, and the musical sequences are edited in the chop-chop MTV style that does no favors to the performers. Marguerite Derricks' choreography is lively, though very few dance routines are played out at any length. The new "Fame" is like a series of snippets and teasers for a movie still waiting to be made.

Opens: Friday, Sept. 25 (MGM)
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