Friday, September 25, 2009

Fame: Rather tame

Fame (2009) • View trailer for Fame
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for teen drinking, mild profanity and sexual content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.25.09
Buy DVD: Fame• Buy Blu-Ray: Fame (Extended Dance Edition + Digital Copy) [Blu-ray]

Director Kevin Tancharoen's re-boot of Fame is a lot of fun, but it ain't magical.

In that essential respect, it's a shadow of its 1980 predecessor, which was an all-stops-out sensation, copping two Academy Awards (song and score), garnering nominations for four others  including Christopher Gore's screenplay  and leading to a TV series that ran four years, from 1983-87.
Believing herself alone in the performance hall, Denise (Naturi Naughton)
forgoes her classical piano exercise to deliver a mesmerizing rendition of
"Out Here on My Own" -- the power ballad retained from 1980's Fame -- which
is one of the few times this film truly comes alive.

One would have thought, in the wake of Disney's hugely popular High School Musical series, that the time was right to follow another generation of young talents through their four years at the New York City High School of Performing Arts; I've no doubt that's how MGM got sold on the project.

But Tancharoen's handling of this new Fame too frequently lacks the pizzazz of its predecessor, and Allison Burnett's screenplay is an oddly safe and sanitized version of Gore's much edgier storyline. Aside from trying to get a handle on their dance, music and stage skills, Gore's often troubled kids confronted gender issues, teen pregnancy and a few other real-life challenges that made them seem reasonably authentic ... and justified that film's R rating.

Burnett's PG-rated kids, in significant contrast, have been drawn from the Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney "Hey, kids, let's put on a show" mold. Fox's Glee, in its fourth glorious week, is much sassier, its scripts moving into moderately "dangerous" territory that makes its characters more interesting, and the show's overall impact much more entertaining.

Mind you, there's nothing wrong with a wholesome look at singing and dancing teens ... but High School Musical owns that end of the street. If Tancharoen and Burnett truly wished to remake Fame, then they should have cut closer to the bone.

The other problem here concerns character balance. Despite the roughly dozen kids who command this spotlight, the lion's share of time is spent with two girls: Denise (Naturi Naughton), a classical pianist desperately wanting to cut loose as a singer of all types of music; and Jenny (Kay Panabaker), a whitebread naif who can't loosen up enough to be "real" as either a singer or an actress.

Naughton's Denise deserves the attention, both because she's a helluva singer  she gets the standout solo piano power ballad, "Out Here on My Own" (a carryover from the first film), and truly makes it her own  and because her story arc is genuinely captivating. Denise's overbearing father, no doubt having stood over his daughter as she obediently practiced Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, demands that she adhere to "the plan" and resist any distractions.

That means, for example, turning down an invitation to join the orchestra backing the school's stage musical. This suggestion comes from Denise's teacher, Martin Cranston (Kelsey Grammer, perfectly cast), who believes the breadth would be good for her. As Denise progresses from freshman to senior year, her desire to branch out becomes stronger, as does her willingness to defy her father. It's a solid narrative, and Naughton brings considerable emotional depth to her role.

Panabaker's Jenny, on the other hand, doesn't even belong here. We watch Jenny sing one song  utterly bereft of emotion, since the girl has no real-world experience from which to draw  and then never see her contribute significantly to any performance or production for the rest of the film. Some of these kids withdraw or get booted for various reasons, but somehow Jenny stays on ... when it seems blindingly obvious that the teaching staff should have released her at the end of freshman year.

But no, Jenny is retained, mostly to support her end of a cute relationship with Marco (Asher Book), a laid-back natural who honed his singing chops while performing for tips in his parents' restaurant, as a kid.

Of the other kids, the stand-outs include Joy (Anna Maria Perez de Tagle, quite familiar from TV's Hannah Montana), a bubbly aspiring actress; Kevin (Paul McGill), a small-town dancer hoping to make it in the big city; and Neil (Paul Iacono), a Scorsese-influenced film director forever seeking a fresh way of looking at the world.

Kherington Payne's Alice gets some solid screen time for her energetic modern dancing, but her character  bored daughter of rich and stuffy parents  is a two-dimensional cipher. Collins Pennié's Malik may as well be tattooed with a sign that reads 'Angry African-American rapper'; his character is nothing but a walking cliché.

That leaves Victor (Walter Perez), a musician/composer who can't see the relevance of practicing the music of long-dead white guys. Victor shows early promise as a character, but the film loses track of him as it progresses.

Actually, Tancharoen and Burnett have trouble keeping track of several things, notably the passage of time. Their film is divided into chapters that reflect each school year, but  for example  the freshman year segues so quickly to the sophomore year, that the feeling is akin to whiplash. We get absolutely no sense of a logical progression of time that includes growth by most of these characters.

Bad pacing is a newbie mistake, and I wasn't surprised to learn that this update of Fame is Tancharoen's big-screen directorial debut.

Aside from Grammer  who deliberately channels his beloved role as Frasier Crane, when this film's Cranston fastidiously insists on precision  the school's teaching staff members are played by actors obviously hand-picked for their own real-world talents. Thus, Bebe Neuwirth is completely credible as dance instructor Lynn Kraft, and Charles Dutton is equally perfect as acting instructor James Dowd.

Vocal coach Fran Rowan is engagingly played by Megan Mullally (TV's Will and Grace), who belts the hell out of the Rodgers and Hart standard, "You Took Advantage of Me."

But enough about this sort of stuff; a film such as Fame rises or falls on its singing, dancing and production numbers. The good news is that choreographer Marguerite Derricks concocts several stylish sequences, my favorite being a costume-laden Halloween party/stage show.

On the other hand, Derricks' work sometimes is ill-served by Tancharoen and editor Myron Kerstein. I knew we were in trouble when this film's nod to the original's "Hot Lunch Jam"  a scene that builds pretty much the same as its predecessor, back in 1980  just couldn't quite catch the intensity and unabashed joie de vivre that the sequence demands. Worse yet, Tancharoen cuts away from this engaging performance free-for-all just as it builds to a crescendo, to follow a doleful Denise out of the room.

Such gripes aside, the new Fame is hard to dislike completely; it certainly has plenty of energy, and it benefits greatly from Naughton's scene-stealing, career-making performance. But this film will, I suspect, remain a distant also-ran behind the far more sparkling High School Musical/Glee one-two punch.

Which means, when it comes to Fame 2009  and to sadly paraphrase the vibrant title anthem's lyrics  we're unlikely to remember their names.

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