Fame, a remake of the 1980 mini-classic, is, simply put, an incongruous mishmosh.
Director Kevin Tancharoen attempts to give us an unflinching look at the intensity of an arts school, rendering and pacing his shots with documentarian-like grit. Meanwhile, a screenplay by Allison Burnett wants to be a character study, offering an intimate glimpse at a handful of young artists working toward their dreams. The problem is that neither Tancharoen nor Burnett seems to be mindful of each other’s goals. Fame then plays out like a constant tug-of-war between “this is about the process” and “this is about the people.”
The bigger problem, perhaps, is that Fame falls short on either front. As an examination or celebration of the performing arts, the film offers few moments of inspiration. Song and dance sequences are typically underwhelming, with some even straddling arenas of disjoint and non-sequitur. In the end, you’ll be hard-pressed to remember a word, even a tune, from any of the film’s musical offerings.
One bright and brilliant exception, however, provides the sole moment of worth in this otherwise flaccid affair. Denise, one of the film’s focal students, sits at a piano in a vacated auditorium, armed with only her natural gifts. Unrestrained and entirely invested in her abilities, she belts out the song “Out Here on My Own” while pounding out her own accompaniment on the keys before her. As Denise, Naturi Naughton lends immense and beautiful vocals with a fervent heart, creating a truly uplifting exercise. The sheer power of Naughton’s song, the fire in her spirit, immediately recalls Jennifer Hudson’s Oscar-winning breakthrough in the 2006 movie musical Dreamgirls.
The rest of Denise as a character falls victim to weak storytelling. Characters are flat and underdeveloped throughout, and any attempt to create dramatic conflict among them is completely manufactured. Just as the songs quickly slip the mind, you’re likely to remember only one or two names by the film’s end. Aside from the show-stopping stylings of Naturi Naughton, only Asher Book’s dulcet croonings and the hypnotic movements of Kherington Payne (of So You Think You Can Dance fame) offer any palpable talent. In fact, our leading lady Jenny, played by Kay Panabaker (who crumbles next to her vastly more qualified costars), proves quite the puzzling presence. We watch her stumble through initial auditions, struggle with the simplest of tasks during class, and consistently shoulder a shroud of self-doubt. We spend the movie anticipating her big moment—her time to show us what she’s made of—but it never comes.
The same is true for the remaining students. Those who show promise and talent in the beginning (those aforementioned performers) end on high-notes. Those whose talents aren’t readily apparent at the start remain unfulfilled in the end—despite massive efforts and the sturdiest ambitions. Even those who succeed do so with caveats and consequences, and so, the film’s ultimate message reads as “Don’t bother. It’s not worth it.”
In the end, Fame plays out as the opposite of a tribute to the arts. Plots and characters steep in the acerbity of soapy drama, and even the musical sequences are unremarkable and confusing. For a song-and-dance show, it’s simply not fun: it’s a major bummer. Fame may want to “live forever,” but I could barely escape as it was “killing me softly.”
Fame was produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in association with United Artists and Lakeshore Entertainment. Directed by Kevin Tancharoen. Written by Allison Burnett based on the screenplay by Christopher Gore. Also starring Kristy Flores, Paul Iacono, Paul McGill, Collins Pennie, Walter Perez, and Anna Maria Perez de Tagle as students, with Debbie Allen, Charles S. Dutton, Kelsey Grammer, Megan Mullally, and Bebe Neuwirth as their instructors. Runtime is 102 minutes. Rated PG for thematic material including teen drinking, a sexual situation and language.