The new Fame is practically identical to Alan Parker's 1980 original -- I mean, it's the same damn movie -- except for all the parts with heart and humor and poignancy and soul and fun. The main difference between the two films -- aside from the fact the original was rated R, to reflect the reality of New York City teenagers, and the new one is rated PG, to reflect the reality of Hannah Montana and Jonas Brothers fan clubs -- can be summed up in one scene.
In Parker's version, a dance student is devastated after she's told she doesn't have the talent to cut it at the New York High School of Performing Arts, and appears to be contemplating suicide as a subway car approaches. But when the train hurtles past, she's still standing on the platform, shrugs and says "F--- it. If I can't dance, I'll change to the drama department."
In the new Fame, which was directed by music video veteran (and apparent telenovela buff) Kevin Tancharoen, the dejected dance student, now a boy, still opts not to jump in front of the train. But he collapses in a heap of melodramatic sobs into the arms of his worried pals. Oh, the tragedy!
Oh, the headache this movie gave me! The mostly-unknown actors who make up the cast of Fame are an undeniably talented song-and-dance bunch, blessed with grandly photogenic faces, lovely voices and the moves to go along with them. But the movie does them no favors. For example, Naturi Naughton belts out a beautiful rendition of Out Here On My Own (one of only two songs from the original to survive the jump to 2009, along with the title track, which is wasted over the end credits). But she has been directed to overemote and overact horribly during the performance, instead of allowing her singing to carry the scene, and she comes off like an early-round loser on American Idol, the sort that makes way too many funny faces to be taken seriously.
There are other odes to the original Fame, including a recreation of the impromptu cafeteria jam/dance session (although set to a different song), which gives the film its sole moment of genuine musical juice. But most of this remake, which was written by Allison Burnett, chucks out the multi-layered characterizations and interwoven storylines of Christopher Gore's 1980 screenplay. In their place, we get a dishearteningly rote romance between two students (Asher Book and Kay Panabaker) which could have been lifted out of any teen-oriented TV serial, and an angry, brooding kid (the musically gifted Collins Pennie) waiting for a teacher to step up and break through to him.
The instructors in Fame are all played by familiar TV actors (Megan Mullaly, Kelsey Grammer, Bebe Neuwirth), but with the exception of Mullaly, who at least gets to belt out a number, the roles are all thankless. Debbie Allen, who played the dance teacher in the 1980 film, returns here as the school principal, presumably as a nod to fans of the original. A better tribute would have been to make a movie that didn't condescend to its intended teen audience and coddle them with hollow fairy tales about how, if you do your homework and try really hard, all your dreams will come true, no matter what your lot in life happens to be.
Better still, they should have just left Fame alone. Parker understood that just because you're making a musical doesn't mean you have to coat it in sugar and candy hearts. Forget about living forever: This new Fame will be lucky to hang around for a month.