Sunday, May 16, 2010

 

Celebrate the me (and you) yet to come


By Edward Copeland
Last year, they released a remake of Alan Parker's Fame, which opened 30 years ago today. Of course, I didn't bother to see the new version, not only because of my general rule not to see remakes of films that I thought were good in the first place (though I'm sure many will argue with me about Parker's film) but also because the new version had a PG rating, indicating to me that the new Fame would take place in a sanitized world. Parker's Fame did not. (As Roger Ebert opened his review of the remake: Why bother to remake Fame if you don't have a clue why the 1980 movie was special?)

Set in the New York of the late '70s, it was a film for mature teens and adults, earning its R rating with subject matter and without the glossy-eyed "anyone can be a star" attitude that permeates our American Idol-soaked culture of today. Fame emphasized work and the risk of failure, not the chance for easy fame or fluke stardom. Alan Parker's Fame looked at the students of the High School for the Performing Arts with an unblinking eye in a world much closer to what it takes to achieve artistic success than the easy climb reality TV tosses as a lure like a drug pusher offering that first free taste of crack before the user realizes that the saccharine fantasyland dream being sold to them is going to come at a very high price with inevitable lows.


Though not necessarily thought of as one, Fame belonged to that group of films of the late 1970s and early 1980s that treated coming of age tales with respect. The characters sprang from wide ranges of locales and social circles and dissimilar stories (Breaking Away, Saturday Night Fever), even variances in age groups (Over the Edge, Diner, My Bodyguard) and quality (Rich Kids, Foxes). As time went on, these types of films became rarer beasts, degenerating mostly into teen sex comedies such as Porky's or The Last American Virgin or superficial comedies from the John Hughes School of Formula Filmmaking. A few within those groups would break out as great such as Risky Business or Say Anything, but for the most part, they were a rarity and the heyday was over soon after the release of Fame.

Granted, Alan Parker's filmography hardly equals perfection, but it puzzles me how far his star has fallen when so many of his films, in my opinion, are pretty damn good. Looking over the list of his directing efforts, I noticed that most of the ones I remember most fondly link themselves intricately with music: Bugsy Malone, Pink Floyd The Wall, Angel Heart (a great thriller, pumped by Trevor Jones' score), The Commitments and the film we're discussing here, Fame. Even though I'm not that big a fan of Midnight Express, can anyone who has seen it forget its pulsating Giorgio Moroder score? On the other hand, Parker also helmed the bloated bore that was the movie version of the musical Evita.

Since Fame is set at the New York High School for the Performing Arts, the film written by Christopher Gore divides itself into appropriate sections to show progression through the years, assuming the potential students make it in in the first place.

THE AUDITIONS

Following white-on-black credits, the first image we see in Fame is a photo of Laurence Olivier as Shakespeare's Othello before we plunge into the chaos of the countless would-be students trying to gain entry to the prestigious school to hone their crafts in dance, acting or music while learning the academic basics at the same time. For the most part, the actors in the film are auditioning for us as well, since many of the main characters are played by relative newcomers or actually are making their film debuts. Film editor Gerry Hambling and Parker make a great team, building a wonderful rhythm that smoothly moves from one scene to another without the need for clunky transitions; they just glide from sequence to sequence.

What I so enjoyed about Fame the very first time I saw it (and what I generally like about works as different from Parker's film as HBO's late, great The Wire) is that Fame doesn't waste time with exposition scenes introducing us the important characters. In fact, during the audition section, viewers are treated to quite a few scenes of characters trying out for the school that we will never see again. The moviegoer just has to watch and learn as the film goes on which students will be pivotal.

Not only is this an approach I appreciate as a film or TV watcher, it also provides some of the funniest moments as when a potential drama student stumbles his way through Shakespeare, unaware that he's reading Juliet's part and another where a girl's audition is re-creating O.J. Simpson's role in The Towering Inferno, which mostly consists of her standing and waiting for an imaginary elevator. It brought back memories of post-high school when I went back to judge drama contests for my high school drama teacher and one teen did a dramatic interpretation (a contest event where a person portrays multiple characters while standing) of Oliver Stone's Platoon. I know the young man didn't intend it to be funny, but as he shifted from side to side alternating shouts of "Barnes!" and "Elias!" interspersed with Charlie Sheen's stilted narration, the best acting in the classroom was mine for my ability to keep a straight face. I couldn't laugh out loud and it made me unable to ever see Platoon the same way again. Still, even the most casual movie viewer can discern which tryouts will land spaces in the school. When Montgomery (Paul McCrane) stumbles over the word depressed in his memorized monologue, that's a good clue.

It's funny that watching it now it should remind me of events from my own life, even though I never attended an arts high school, because even when I saw Fame the first time on cable around 1981 or 1982, it spoke to me, almost as if it were foreshadowing. Perhaps that's part of its appeal to me that remains lost on so many others: I recognized parts of it as things that would eventually occur in my life, even though it had to have been on a subconscious level. That didn't mean I knew or would know specifically a Coco (Irene Cara) or a Doris (Maureen Teefy); a Ralph (the superb Barry Miller) or a Bruno (Lee Curreri); a Leroy (Gene Anthony Ray) or a Hilary (Antonia Franceschi); a Lisa (Laura Dean) or a Montgomery (McCrane, whom ER fans will find delightful beneath his huge, bright red afro). Aspects of them may pop up in people in my life, but it was more the atmosphere that seemed familiar to a kid in junior high, even though I'd never been to New York City, never tried to fake tap shoes by attaching Pepsi bottle caps to the bottom of my tennis shoes or been convinced that I could replace an orchestra with the right assortment of keyboards and electronic equipment.

FRESHMAN YEAR

As the first school year begins to the strains of my favorite song from the soundtrack, "Dogs in the Yard," not only do we get to know the central students better, we also receiver tighter focus on the school's teachers. What I always forget, and I'm sure I'm not alone in this regard thanks to the television series that followed the film and ran briefly on NBC before running even longer in syndication, Debbie Allen may have been the lead on the watered-down TV version but she appears in a single scene of the movie (in the audition sequence when Leroy is introduced accompanying his friend Shirley who is applying to the school as a dancer but gets rejected while Leroy is accepted, despite the fact he wasn't even trying to get in.) The real dancing tutelage in the film comes from Miss Berg (Joanna Merlin) who can be a taskmaster, especially to those who aren't pulling their weight such as Lisa, but really recognizes the innate gifts of a Leroy or a Hilary when it comes to the art of dance.

Shepherding the would-be actors is Mr. Farrell (Jim Moody) who explains to his students from the outset what they are about to get into as "an underprivileged minority who are going to suffer for their craft" and he doesn't sugarcoat the fact that most actors are not working actors. One thing that is nice is that despite the film's title and its Oscar-winning title song's lyrics (music by Michael Gore; lyrics by Dean Pitchford; Gore also won original score), most of the students do have moments where you see that the passion is for their craft not for the fame and fortune that comes to the fortunate few. Drama is where Ralph has landed (still hiding from his real name of Raul and his Puerto Rican heritage and still engaging in Freddie Prinze worship) as did Doris (still struggling with her overbearing mother, so interested in her future she even showed up at her audition to snap photos.) Doris still finds herself terribly "ordinary" but many of the students are excited at the perceived success of a graduating student named Michael (Boyd Gaines) who has won a prestigious acting scholarship but is passing it up for the lure of Hollywood and an offer from William Morris. Also taking the acting path is Montgomery who finally is getting the courage to admit that he is gay to people. In 2010, this seems old hat, but this still was fairly refreshing in 1980, even if we never see him find romance. He and Doris develop a tentative friendship but Ralph's desire to push everyone away with calculated hostility rubs Doris the wrong way. "I must remember this feeling and use it in my acting," Doris declares after Ralph belittles her and Montgomery.

Teaching the musicians is the great Albert Hague as Shorofsky and most of his conflicts come with Bruno, who resents the idea of having to learn actual instruments. Bruno also has a strong booster in his cab driver father (Eddie Barth), who plays Bruno's compositions for his passengers and spends a fortune on his equipment. When he and and his brother drag the equipment into the high school, the brother asks why Bruno couldn't play a simple instrument like their father played the accordion. "My son's head is in the future," Barth replies, "and dad could never play the accordion." During one classroom exchange, as Bruno struggles to make music come out of a violin, he tries to make the case to Shorofsky that his ways are old fashioned and that if Mozart were alive, he'd be composing music more like Bruno is. "What about an orchestra?" the teacher asks. "Who needs an orchestra?" Bruno replies, explaining that his equipment can ape all the appropriate instruments and he could perform any work all by himself. "That's not music, it's masturbation," Shorofsky responds.

One thing all the craft teachers agree on, in a well-edited sequence, is that the art they teach is the most difficult, be it acting, music or dance. Still, the kids also have academics to deal with and the teacher who symbolizes that aspect is Mrs. Sherwood (Anne Meara, giving the best performance she's ever given on screen and a rare dramatic one). She butts heads early and often with Leroy, who tries to hide the fact that he is illiterate. It is one of the film's weaknesses that they are still having this battle by senior year, by which time you'd expect Leroy would have been flunked out no matter how great a dancer he is, but that's not addressed. However, Meara soars so high that I'll let it slide.

Among the students, the one who is the most anxious for stardom and who views the school as merely a stepping stone to her inevitable rise to the top is Coco. She gets a reluctant Bruno to aid her by writing songs for her to sing, particularly after one impromptu lunch jam session that again as a young teen seemed to predict scenes from my future when myself and other bored teens would sit around various schools' gathering areas singing and dancing and awaiting results from drama contests in high school. What once played as something that I longed to be a part of, later reminded me of my current life and now drips in nostalgia for days long gone and friends very much missed. Sometimes reactions such as that trump any criticism you might have: a film strikes too many familiar chords for you to be able to distance yourself from it, especially when you fell for it at a young age.

SOPHOMORE YEAR

As the students begin their second year, Mr. Farrell tells his drama students that their sophomore year will move them from simple observation to emotional states and the characters themselves begin to show more of this themselves, both in and out of class. Doris frets when Farrell assigns them to discuss one of their most painful memories to share with the class but Montgomery assures her that if she gets stuck, she can always borrow one of his because he has plenty from his years of therapy. Of course, when his time comes to share his moment, his does deal with his homosexuality and the unfortunate crush he developed on his therapist. Ralph, who up until this point of the film always has played the role of a jester or provocateur, actually reveals the most of himself when he opens up about what Freddie Prinze means to him and his absolute denial that the comic actor committed suicide as everyone says. It had to be an accident, Ralph insists, Prinze had too much to live for. Miller already was good in the movie, but from this point on, Miller is by far the standout, which is not that surprising given that he had the most experience of most of the young actors in the cast, even playing Tony Manero's high school friend Bobby C., used for his car and meeting an untimely fate on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in Saturday Night Fever. It really makes me wonder where this talented man's career went since he was so good in both of these pivotal late '70s/early '80s films. He's worked steadily and won a featured actor Tony in 1985 for Biloxi Blues, but his career should have been bigger. Fortunately, youTube has a clip of a great Ralph monologue, though it's from the Junior Year section of the film, to give a better idea of how good Miller is in this film.



The two main girls on the dance track are facing quite different futures. Lisa continues to be more interested in being a chatterbox in class and, much to Miss Berg's chagrin, never seems to even work up a sweat. The teacher finally has enough and despite the girl's pleas, tells her it's time of her to go because she doesn't have the discipline to make it as a dancer. The story for Hilary is turning out quite different. She may come from wealth, but she lives for the craft and it shows, particularly in a lovely sequence where Leroy spies her practicing by herself and the street tough find himself wowed by her grace (and her body doesn't hurt either). Hilary returns the attraction and, always eager to shock her rich WASP parents, brings Leroy home with her "to study" just to see their jaws drop.

The second school year also brings us perhaps the film's most famous sequence, the one containing the film's Oscar-winning title song. It begins as Bruno's leading supporter, his father, parks his cab in front of the school, hooks up loud speakers and blasts the song "Fame," a composition in the movie's universe that Bruno composed using Coco's vocals. Coco couldn't be more thrilled. Bruno wants to hide away somewhere, he's so embarrassed. Everyone else just wants to dance in the streets, which they do, often on top of angry New Yorkers' cars, sparking a small scale riot over the traffic jam session. It's also an illustration of the universe where Fame resides, the old New York City, when it was grittier and scarier, before Times Square became the Disneyfied place it is today.


JUNIOR YEAR

From this point on in the film, Parker and the Oscar-nominated screenplay by Christopher Gore does make what I think is their most serious mistake. Not that the remainder of the movie isn't good, it's just that from this point on, the school is largely forgotten. In this section in fact, there isn't a single scene involving the classroom at all. That's fine because the students' characters and stories continue to evolve, but it seems to undermine the movie's central premise at the same time. Early on, we do get one scene that takes place within the confines of the school where Coco sings the film's other Oscar-nominated song, the lovely "Out Here on My Own," (also written by Michael Gore with lyrics by Lesley Gore of "It's My Party" fame) which frankly I think is a vastly superior composition to "Fame" which won. Coco plays the piano as Bruno watches approvingly. I think this clip more that backs up my point.


We also begin to learn more why Ralph wants to escape his home life so badly as basically he is the surrogate father for his younger sisters as his unseen mother goes through husbands. Despite her initial animosity toward him, Doris, growing more confident as time goes on, begins a tentative romance with Ralph and the two of them and Montgomery become sort of a trio, though Montgomery definitely feels and knows he is the third wheel in the situation. One thing I love about Fame are the many shots of the characters in windowsills, framed against the neon of the old nighttime New York. Parker doesn't do it enough for it to wear out its welcome, but it's nice, especially when you can look out on the period Times Square and see that among the shows currently playing Broadway are the original Grease and Annie. It works exceedingly well during a Ralph monologue and perhaps best of all in another of the film's strongest songs, when Montgomery, alone in a room with nothing but a guitar, sings, "Is It OK If I Call You Mine?"

The Ralph-Doris romance also introduced me to another phenomenon that was unfamiliar to me but which would later become a large part of my high school life, especially after returning from drama contests: The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Though Montgomery first made a brief reference to it during the sophomore year section). When Fame came out, Rocky was only five years old. If you want to feel really old, it turns 35 this year. Ralph and Doris attend the midnight screening at the famous Waverly Theater hosted by none other than the legendary Rocky Horror Picture Show Fan Club President Sal Piro. It was another case of Fame foreshadowing what would become a major part of my life. Ironically, since midnight movies became a staple of high school, now lost to many of today's teens by terrified towns imposing curfews (sorry kids, you were born too late), the other main midnight showing that my gang of friends and I would revisit frequently happened to be Alan Parker's Pink Floyd The Wall. Anyway, back to the sequence in Fame. By this, her third year in school, Doris really begins to lose her shell and at the movie partakes of her first toke of pot. To Ralph's surprise, it emboldens Doris to the point that she joins the performers on stage in front of the screen in "The Time Warp." The next day, Doris still glows from the experience as Ralph expresses surprise at her openness while they share the night's activity with Montgomery. Doris is pleased to say that it wasn't her up there taking a jump to the left and a step to the right, she was just wearing a costume. Everyone was looking at someone else, not ordinary old Doris. The three are surprised when they realize their waiter is former high school star Michael (Boyd Gaines). Things didn't work out in California the way he expected them to, though he shot an unaired pilot and got some day-player work on a soap. The reality of his plight casts a pall on the students.

SENIOR YEAR

For the most part, the senior year section also stays away from the classroom to look at what's happening to the students' lives outside of school, but I'm going to refrain from discussing too much of what happens to them in this final part, just in case someone wants to check the film out for the first time and also because simple description would run the risk of making it sound as if it's turning into an afterschool special, if there are many young people out there anymore who even recognize what an afterschool special was. Besides, as I was preparing this post, I did peruse reviews by younger bloggers out there who didn't think much of the film. That's their right: All opinions are subjective and since senior year is when students decide their future and colleges evaluate possible admissions, I feel I should use this section more in the same way. One negative opinion of the film expressed relief that Montgomery, as a gay character, at least didn't contract AIDS or die in the end. I guess he wasn't aware that AIDS didn't even get its name until 1982, two years after Fame was released. Many of the social issues that get touched upon in Fame which, as I said before, seem pretty routine now, were not routine in 1980 films. It's the same way that when I first viewed 1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, I could recognize how groundbreaking it might have been upon its initial release, but it seemed pretty tame as far as the subject as interracial romance was concerned. (What kind of film would it have been if Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy's characters weren't liberals to start with?) Heck, when Leroy and Hilary hook up in Fame, her parents may blink an eye, but no mention of it is made by anyone else in the film and as a viewer I didn't find it strange. It's also why 1947's Gentleman's Agreement seems so dated when a gentile (Gregory Peck) goes undercover to root out anti-Semitism. Another best picture nominee that year, Crossfire, was much more daring in dealing with anti-Semitism and the murder of a Jewish man — and that was changed from the book it was based on where the murder victim was gay. Issues evoke different treatments and different reactions in different times and sometimes need to be viewed in that context.

The one character who does get a brief taste of success (and failure) in this section is Ralph, who finally lives up to his Freddie Prinze dreams by getting a chance at standup (introduced by a young Richard Belzer) and announcing himself as a "professional asshole." Inevitably, the success goes to his head and begins to cause rifts between him and Doris, who urges him to stop trying to be Freddie. He's better than Freddie, she insists, "You are an original. You don't have to be someone else." As Montgomery reminds him of his acting training, he also tosses in the fact that in the Middle Ages, they didn't even want to bury actors. Ralph gets a burial of a sorts in a nice sequence that shows how the exact same comedy set can be a roaring success one night and then bomb another. The climax of the film returns to the school for a graduation concert that unites the musicians, dancers and the rest in a wonderfully staged number called "I Sing the Body Electric." As much as I adore this movie, this does beg some questions. First of all, most of the acting students sing in the number though the film never even hints at vocal training or a singing instructor. Also, since they were teaching acting, I would have enjoyed seeing some of the productions they had to have inevitably performed.

Now, as I've been honest in saying, Fame strikes too close to me in many ways for me to look at it with completely objective vision and, as a critic, it's not my job to be objective anyway. Any opinion will inevitably prove subjective, be it based on personal factors or just the way a person judges films. However, all critics (professionals, amateurs and those in between) or plain old moviegoers can't always turn those feelings off but if we do our jobs well and right, readers should be able to recognize the biases that figure into our opinions. My God, does anyone really believe that the late great Pauline Kael loved ALL those De Palma films? However, though I do think the animosity against both Alan Parker and the original Fame are overstated, re-watching it made me aware of the one thing it needed to take it from being a very good movie to becoming a true masterpiece: With its multiple characters, unusual structure and characters and stories that go unresolved, this may be an Alan Parker film, but inside a Robert Altman film is trying to break out.


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Comments:
I have to be honest--I'm not a fan of Fame, and I think it's because I've always seen it (as you mention in your review) as an "afterschool special." But your review of the movie is simply splendid, and does what any good review should do--force the reader to look at what's been examined with a fresh perspective.

I will admit that I developed a crush on Maureen Teefy when this film came out...but the only other movies I ever saw her in were Grease 2 (with the Jackie O hat) and Supergirl.
 
She also was in 1941.
 
i went to drama school because of fame - i was a doris who morphed into a montgomery and ended up a lisa (but wanted to be a leroy - bodywise, not reading level-wise)

i'm still amazed that the cast list reads like a 'whatever happened to' special - i was so sure irene cara and maureen teefy were going to be huge

i find plenty of faults with the film now, but every single time i watch it a big part of me reverts to that 17 year old who wanted to live forever...
 
Even though they have some major differences in terms of content, Fame has always struck me as the kind of film that the cinematic incarnation of A Chorus Line could and should have been. Fame is a film with some obvious deficiencies - many of the performances are amateurish, while certain aspects of the story feel contrived (the gaps in logic don't bother me as much as how melodramatic some of the plot devices are). The reason the film works so well, in spite of its limitations, is that it ultimately feels like a accurate and honest reflection of the world in which it's set. Impromptu musical numbers notwithstanding, Alan Parker isn't trying to fashion some kind of cheerfully sanitized, storybook version of New York City, or an oversimplified Breakfast Club-type fascimile of teenage life. This is the way New York looks and sounds, and this is the way members of the performing arts subculture - actors, dancers, musicians - think, interact and develop. It's a stylized film, but it speaks to the truth of who its subjects are, with an authentic feel for the world in which they live. That's why Fame holds up in a way that so many other similar-themed movies don't - and why A Chorus Line doesn't hold up at all.
 
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