Although the traditional cinema musical, generally based upon a successful Broadway show, went into something of a decline in the late seventies and eighties, this period saw the rise of a new musical genre based around dance and pop music. Like "Saturday Night Fever" and its sequel "Staying Alive", "Flashdance", "Grease" and "Dirty Dancing", "Fame" is an example of this trend. The original title for the film was, apparently, to have been "Hot Lunch ", but this had to be changed when director Alan Parker realised that there was already a pornographic film with the same title. The change was doubtless one for the better; I cannot really imagine Irene Cara singing "Hot Lunch! I'm Gonna Live Forever!"
The film follows a group of students through their studies at the New York High School of Performing Arts, which was a real institution at the time. It is split into sections entitled "Auditions", "Freshman Year", "Sophomore Year", "Junior Year" and "Senior Year", and hence takes place over a time-span of some four years. The opening scenes have something of the feel of a "fly on the wall" documentary about them, As the film progresses we get to know the various students and something of their stories. New York, of course, is a famously multi-ethnic city, and the film-makers were obviously keen to reflect this racial diversity by including at least one representative of most of the city's various ethnic groups (Jewish, Hispanic, Italian, Black, Irish and WASP).
Dance student Leroy Johnson struggles with his academic work, which at this school is given equal weighting with performance, because he is illiterate. Lisa Monroe, another dance student, is dismissed from the course for not working hard enough, and switches to the drama department. Montgomery MacNeil, a drama student, comes out as gay, probably a more daring plot-line in 1980 than it would be today, when it is virtually compulsory for every high school drama to have a token gay character. I wondered if his Christian name was a reference to the gay film star Montgomery Clift.
Raul Garcia, an aspiring stand-up comic, prefers to be called Ralph Garcey in order to hide his Puerto Rican background. His great ambition is to be the next Freddie Prinze- not the future Mr. Sarah Michelle Gellar, who would only have been four years old in 1980, but his father Freddie senior, another Puerto Rican comedian who died in 1977. Unfortunately Ralph seems to feel that the best way of achieving this ambition is to ape Prinze's self-destructive lifestyle.
"Fame" was clearly popular in the early eighties, spawning a television series and a stage musical. That irritatingly catchy theme song provided Cara with a huge chart hit. The basic concept is obviously still thought to be a viable one, because there has been a recent remake (which I have not seen). Yet like many of the musicals of this period, although not perhaps as much as the likes of "Saturday Night Fever", the original film seems rather dated today. (The one which seems to have held up the best is "Grease", probably because that was always intended as a defiantly deliberate anachronism, being twenty years behind the times even when it is made).
The song-and-dance numbers are lively enough, even if the music is not always to my personal taste. Yet there are other reasons, quite apart from its old-fashioned feel, why "Fame" is not my favourite film. One is that, despite the film's apparent aim of celebrating New York's ethnic diversity, too many characters are seen in terms of ethnic stereotypes. (African-Americans are bolshie with a bad attitude, Hispanics ditto, Jewish mothers are domineering and over-protective, etc.)
Another reason I didn't like the film much is that too many of the characters are just too obnoxious to care about. I would agree with the reviewer who found Ralph a "boorish self-centred jerk" but unlike that reviewer I found several of the other characters equally unpleasant. I could not sympathise with the bad-tempered, petulant Leroy and his frequent outbursts of rage, mostly directed at his long-suffering English teacher. Nor with Ralph's girlfriend Doris Finsecker, as keen to deny her Jewish identity as he is to deny his Hispanic one. (She renames herself "Dominique DuPont", largely because she knows this will annoy her mother). Nor with the bone-idle Lisa.
Irene Cara's character Coco Hernandez is difficult to sympathise with for another reason; not because she is a jerk but because she seems too naive to be true. She is taken advantage of by a man posing as a film director who offers her a "screen test"; she turns up at his apartment even though he is played as an obviously sleazy sexual predator. (Had he seemed more plausible this plot line would have had more credibility). Montgomery is one of the film's few likable characters, but the film does not concentrate on his story to any great extent. He largely functions as the school's kindly agony uncle, a shoulder for his heterosexual classmates to cry on.
My final complaint about the film is that there are too many main characters. Even the film's two and a half hour running time is inadequate to do justice to all these stories, some of which could have provided enough material for a whole film in their own right, and few of them are fully developed. Alan Parker has made some excellent films, including "Mississippi Burning" and "Evita", but "Fame" is not really one of them. It is perhaps ironic for a film with this particular title that few of its stars, except Cara, went on to achieve any great fame of their own. 5/10
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