New York was built on ambition. It permeates every rivet in the Empire State Building, every light in Times Square, every stone in Rockefeller Center. New York is a place of oversized talent, unbridled hope and Darwinian competition—a place where the weak are eaten, the strong are beaten and a lucky, talented few thrive.
And the competition starts early.
Open the curtain on New York's renowned School of Performing Arts (which, in reality, merged with another school in 1984 to become the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts). It's tryout day, and 10,000 would-be stars are competing to fill 200 available slots and become part of the school's newest freshman class. The halls are filled with tubas and tap shoes and acting scripts and egos, all hoping to wriggle their way into the school's good graces. If they can make it in here, they can make it anywhere.
We meet a handful of students during these tryouts: Denise, a competent classical pianist with a dynamite voice her father forbids her to use. Jenny, a waif of a girl who wants to become an actress, even though she's too scared to act. Carlos, the master mixer and musician who has little time for traditional technique. Malik, an angry rapper/actor held back by debilitating personal trauma. Kevin, a kid from Iowa who desperately wants to run away and join the circus. I mean, the ballet.
They make the cut, of course, and in the space of two hours, the audience follows these students (among others) through four years of school. We see them sing and dance, struggle and soar, fight with their parents and fall in love as they push toward the goal many have harbored since they were young enough to walk or speak or sing: fame.
Students who walk into the School of Performing Arts (or P.A., as they call it) share one thing: passion. They're enamored—infatuated, if you will—with their gifts. P.A.'s teachers aren't just here to develop students' talents: They're around to help students grow those passions into a deeper, more mature love—one that will last their whole lives. And in so doing they offer some pretty salient lessons to moviegoers as well.
Teachers encourage uptight students to loosen up and free-spirited students to buckle down. When Carlos refuses to play Bach the way it's written, his professor tells him that traditional "techniques do not stifle talent, they free it." When Jenny, so freaked out with the pressure of auditioning, nearly botches hers, the teacher tells her to take a deep breath. "There are a lot of things to be nervous and afraid of," he says, "and this is not one of them."
Indeed, students are taught much more than performing arts at P.A., and their success seems predicated on hard work. The school holds its music, acting and dance classes in the morning, then requires students to cram in a full day of traditional school in the afternoon. "Drop below a C average and you're out," says the principal. "No exceptions." The film even underscores a sobering reality: Not everyone's fit to perform, no matter how much they wish it was so.
A gospel choir unleashes a gorgeous song that includes the refrain, "What a mighty God we serve." Malik sports a cross tattoo on his arm. Students throw a creepy, slightly occult-tinged costume party they've dubbed a "Carnevil."
Jenny and a guy named Marco begin dating around their sophomore year at P.A., and we see the two of them smooch and hug. At one point, Jenny suggests that they go up to her father's apartment because he's "out on a date."
But Jenny has another suitor: actor, P.A. graduate and all-around cad Andy, who's working on a television show and suggests Jenny come by the set sometime. Marco sees Andy for what he is and tells Jenny that the guy is just trying to "hook up" with her, and Jenny promises to never see him again. But when Andy says that the show's casting director wants to audition Jenny, she breaks her promise and visits the set. There, Andy tries to make out with her in his trailer under the auspices of an "audition"—recording a "love scene" between the two of them. He begins kissing her and pushes her down to the couch. (Jenny shoves him off and leaves.)
Several dance scenes feature skimpy, midriff-revealing costumes. The film quietly implies that Kevin might be gay. And another guy at an audition comes across like Ethel Merman.
Malik's kid sister was gunned down in his neighborhood—an event that scarred the young rapper deeply and forms (the movie suggests) a kernel of anger he can't let loose. He refers to the incident both in drama classes and in a rap song he wrote.
One student nearly commits suicide by trying to step in front of an oncoming train. (His friends pull him away in the nick of time.)
Crude or Profane Language
Six s-words. A smattering of other profanities includes "a--," "p---," "b--ch" and "h---." God's name is abused a half-dozen times. It's paired with "d--n" once.
Drug and Alcohol Content
A student's drunk antics are recorded for a film project. During the taping, she launches into an impromptu rap song before throwing up. The film is subsequently shown in class, and the teacher says that while he likes the composition, he has some issues with the content.
"I was trying to expand my horizons," the girl says. "Trust me. I'm not going to do it again."
Classmates attend parties where alcohol is present. A P.A. graduate asks Jenny if she'd like to do shots. As part of a classroom exercise, the kids perform at a karaoke bar.
Other Negative Elements
The Bible tells children to obey their parents and cautions fathers to not exasperate their children. Fame's families disregard both of these biblical tenets and, to no one's surprise, each feeds off the other.
Denise is attending P.A. to become a classical pianist—her father's dream for her—and, he does not want her to be "distracted" by anything else: He forbids her, for instance, to accompany a school performance of Chicago.
But she has a really good voice, and a couple of her classmates encourage her to perform on an album they're making—telling her that her father doesn't need to know about it. Later, as her love of singing grows, she fesses up by inviting her parents to a club where she'll be doing a hip-hop show. (She tells them it'll be classical jazz.) Once they hear her, Denise's father is furious and declares he'll take her out of school. (Her mother intervenes, hushing up Daddy and telling Denise, "You'll stay at that school and we will support you, no matter what.")
Malik, meanwhile, began attending P.A. without his mother even knowing. She finds out, of course, and is mad—not so much because her son went behind her back, but because Malik's career goals seem so unrealistic.
"You're doing something everyone wants to do!" she frets. "Whoever told you you were so special?!"
One student drops out of school because of poor grades—grades that tumbled, ironically, because she got a part-time acting gig on Sesame Street.
The 1980 movie this one reboots was rated R. This one's PG. But despite its new family-friendly bent, Fame has its problems. Characters curse and drink. They fight with their parents and sass their teachers. Aesthetically, it's an uneven film with too many characters and too little character development. And, while some of the performances are good, they're not really much better than what you'd see in, say, Disney's treacly sweet High School Musical movies.
But I'm not writing this review to pretend that I'm the new American Idol judge. I'm writing it to ruminate just a bit on its namesake.
The very word fame has become, perhaps, a summary of our culture's overriding ambition today. Everyone wants their 15 minutes, and they'll go to some outrageous lengths to secure them. Many manifestations of our age, from YouTube on one end of the spectrum to copycat killings on the other, are rooted in society's frantic quest for fame.
Principal Simms tells her students to downplay fame: That's not, she says, what P.A.'s about. Students are there to learn, to develop their craft, to become the best actors or dancers or musicians they can possibly be. Students worried about their headshots or agents or fame or fortune ... well, Simms says that she strongly recommends they "leave now."
Simms understands that fame can be a byproduct of excellence, but should never be a stand-alone goal. While some earn fame by singing well, no one becomes a good singer by being famous.
She—and I—wouldn't say that fame is always bad. After all, who among us doesn't like recognition? We're wired for applause, and often it helps push us to be better.
It's the pursuit of fame that gets us bent out of shape. We only have to take a look at any random week's round of supermarket tabloids for ample proof of how seeking fame can scramble brains. As an aphorism, excellence is a virtue, but the quest for fame is a vice. And when you tie that quest with its natural root—vanity—it becomes an outright sin.
Throughout the film, we see students getting into all sorts of trouble for seeking fame too hungrily. One's ripped off by a fake film producer. Another nearly sleeps with someone in order to get a part. Still another, seeing his dreams of fame dashed, almost kills himself.
Not everyone will see the film's sobering subtext, though. Not with fame's shiny baubles glistening in every scene. Indeed, most of the students—for all their missteps—never see the subtext themselves.
Perhaps, then, a more compelling sequel to Fame would be to find out how characters, after achieving their dream, handled it. Was it everything they hoped it would be? Do the tabloid covers make them happy? Do the paparazzi fill them with joy? Or, when all's said and done, will they measure worth in different ways? Will they find that Principal Simms was right all along?
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Naturi Naughton as Denise; Kay Panabaker as Jenny; Kelsey Grammer as Joel Cranston; Megan Mullally as Fran Rowan; Bebe Neuwirth as Lynn Kraft; Charles S. Dutton as Alvin Dowd; Debbie Allen as Principal Simms; Paul Iacono as Neil Baczynsky; Walter Perez as Victor Taveras; Anna Maria Perez de Tagle as Joy; Collins Pennie as Malik; Asher Book as Marco; Paul McGill as Kevin
Kevin Tancharoen ( Glee: The 3D Concert Movie)
September 25, 2009
January 12, 2010