Friday, October 02, 2009

'Fame' is too tame to matter

The latest film to come up out of Hollywood’s more-productive-than-ever remake mill is “Fame,” a partially regurgitated reincarnation of the 1980 film of the same name about the New York High School of Performing Arts, a school known for being as difficult to get into as an Ivy league college.

Unfortunately, for a film about the performing arts, this new “Fame” seems to have little interest in exploring why an artist performs, what drives them, what inspires them or what their art means. We get hints of what that discussion could sound like in all too brief monologues from the veterans in the cast including Kelsey Grammer, Bebe Neuwirth and Megan Mullally.

The film is broken up into chapters: audition day, freshman year, sophomore year and so on. Things start out promisingly enough with the audition chapter full of energy, laughs and genuinely impressive performances. My admitted skepticism about the film began to melt away only to return with a vengeance as the film progressed.

I have not seen the original “Fame,” but here’s what I know without seeing it: the 1980 version of “Fame” was rated R and was two hours and 13 minutes. In 2009, “Fame” is now PG and clocks in at one hour and 47 minute. That should give you an indication of the priorities of the people behind the scenes of the 21st century edition.

The new “Fame” is as flashy as a Britney Spears concert and about as superficial as one too, which is appropriate enough given that director Kevin Tancharoen’s biggest directing credit is “Britney Spears Live from Miami.”

Tancharoen’s time with Britney did serve him well in terms of knowing how to stage elaborate dance or song numbers. Tancharoen does have an eye for vibrantly directing dance routines and the few big dance numbers scattered throughout the film are often spectacular, especially one set in a cafeteria.

It is when it comes to scenes of drama that Tancharoen falls flat. You get the sense that Tancharoen is well aware of his limitations. A scene in which a teacher informs a student that he won’t be able to make it as a performer is intercut with several girls dancing seductively. The idea is to show their talent to his lack of talent, but it merely undermines the drama of the scene.

There is also evidence of heavy editing to reach the PG rating. Either that or the characters were severely underwritten by screenwriter Allison Burnett. Only one character, Denise (Naturi Naughton), a classical pianist who must hide her desire to be an R&B singer from her parents, has a complete story arc. Other characters' stories are brought in and then left dangling.

In the most egregious example of this the character of Jenny (Kay Panabaker) is shown to be insecure and uptight early in the film, so much so it isn’t unclear how she got past the school’s stringent audition process, but by the film’s finale she is confidently belting out a solo. We have no idea how she made the transition and that transformation could’ve made for interesting drama.

Similarly, the character of Malik (Collins Pennie) is given a back story that is never fully addressed after it is brought up. There are scenes between Pennie and his drama teacher played by Charles S. Dutton that have a spark, but there’s a sense that most of their conversations were left on the cutting room floor.

It is a shame the young cast didn’t have better material and that what they did have was hacked away because there is some real talent here. Naughton and Asher Book have striking vocal abilities and Pennie is a strong actor and a good rapper.

Perhaps somewhere there’s a more complete cut of the film that doesn’t leave so many things unanswered. Would this version be a great film? Probably not as the characters and their conflicts are too clichéd. Even so, there is chance that there may be a slightly better, longer film out there.

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