Thursday, March 4, 2010

Movie Review
    — Fame (2009)

I got to watch the recent remake of the early-80s musical film Fame recently, on the flight back from Sydney to Los Angeles.  And my first reaction was “Why did they bother?”

This site has a good summary of the original movie, what worked about it, and what resulted from it.  I only saw the original for the first time a couple years ago, via Netflix.

I suppose the answer to my first reaction should be “Why wouldn’t they bother?  This was a transformative movie in the 1980s, so it could be again.”  (To which your response should be “Yeah, sure it could.  Suuuurre it could.  That trick always works.”)  The real answer, of course, would be “Everything old is new again.  Here’s a former majorly successful property that isn’t bringing in any money.  Let’s bring it back!”

Fame is hardly the first 20–30 year old “property” to be brought back in recent years.  And after all, if you see this as a movie intending to attract teens to the performing arts, then it needs to have today’s sounds, today’s dances, and today’s problems in it, not the ones from 30 years ago.  The movie needs to be relevant to have an impact (or so the theory goes).

So why/where does it fail?  That’s hard to say.
  • A portion of the failure is on my part.  Now in my 40s, I’m distanced from the kids and the issues in this film.  (In comparison, although I only saw the original a couple years ago, more of what that set of kids dealt with was part of my life than what these kids did.)
  • They failed with the big dance number.  In the original, it spilled out into the street, dancing on cars and the like.  In this version, it is confined to the lunch room.  That betrays a conservativeness which takes some of the power out of the scene.  (And maybe it betrays a budget limitation, too.)  In the original, the kids were so full of excitement and possibility that they overflowed right out of the building; in this, regardless of dancing on the tables and such, they were still constrained by the realities of their lives, confined by the walls, bowing to the expectations that they stay in the building.
  • While Naturi Naughton was a fine singer, the title song was reserved for the closing credits, so we never saw her sing it and it lost power as a result (original).  And while I wouldn’t have wanted “I Sing the Body Electric” as the big closing song (okay, a few lines of it somewhere in the movie would have been great), that song had more power than what they did use.
  • The new film is only 107 minutes long, or 123 for the “extended version” (more dancing, I think; it was the theatrical release on the plane).  The original was 134 minutes long, a bit more than 25% longer.  Take each scene and make it 25% longer.  25% more song, 25% more dance, 25% more characterization.  You chop the length, you chop the power.  Several plotlines got abbreviated, forcing us to invent what comes next with the kid whose mother doesn’t want him in the school, or the one whose money got stolen.
  • Too much story.  This ties back into the previous item, but they are covering four years of the lives of these characters.  27 minutes a year.  (Closer to 20 minutes a year, since the first 20 minutes of the film is before the year starts.)  The means you get just snippets, snapshots of the characters, with little taste for their growth or their daily lives at the school.  While it showed that some wash out and some move on to other performing tasks instead of graduating, for most of the characters, that was just too much time shoved through a little pipe.
In the end, I can’t quite decide: did the movie fail (in comparison to the original) because it reached too high, tried to do too much, and couldn’t match what it was being compared to?  Or because it didn’t reach high enough, because it was too constrained by budgets and time limits and the like?

Updated on March 5, 2010
Two more things occurred to me last night with this:
  • Where were the older students early in the film, and the younger ones later.  The the High School for the Performing Arts just take in one class every four years, and hope enough stay through to the end to pay the bills?  Doubt it.  Not that I expected them to focus on characters across the age range, but just clear indicators of students from other years would have been good.  (Of course, this isn’t unusual.  Consider most any high school-based show — Glee, early Smallville, whatever — and they focus just on kids from one class, as though they were the entirety of the school population.)
  • I think they missed an opportunity to connect this to the original film by not recruiting at least one member of the original cast to be one of the teachers in this film, or at least to have a minute or two as a guest lecturer.  That would have served both (a) a way to bring in fans of the first movie, establishing continuity and providing a path to refresh the property again in a few years, and (b) would have shown what career paths exist for graduates of the school.  This could have also added some poignancy to the storyline for the kid whose mother runs a dance studio: no matter how lofty your dreams, sometimes you will have to be the one who teaches, who supports the dreams of others.

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