The byline of the movie "Fame" is "I’m gonna make it to heaven." But whereas the award-winning 1980 film by Alan Parker inspired a generation of theatrically-artistic wanna-bes into reaching for the stars, the 2009 version is pure hell - boring, redundant and talentless. In attempting to "reinvent" the original story, screenwriters Aline Brosh McKenna and Allison Burnett offer us the plot of "High School Musical" without its charm and appealing musical beat. It doesn’t work. Instead, the movie plays like a feckless "Camp" sequel (you remember, that indie film where uber-gay kids and their straight friends go to summer camp to study musical theatre) with slightly higher production values thanks to the music video cutting of director Kevin Tancharoen. PS: "Camp" wasn’t all that great to begin with.
The plot derives directly from the 1980s version, right down to its year-by-year chapters. In "Auditions" we’re treated to nearly 20 minutes of mind-numbing attempts by thousands of kids to get into the New York High School of Performing Arts - and unfortunately, even the good students kind of suck. Brilliant dancers are overshadowed by just about any number on "So You Think You Can Dance," the top-tier vocalists suffer in comparison to the contestants on "American Idol," and I’ll wager you’ll see better actors in your local High School plays. A handful of kids get in (can I see the stand-bys, please?) and over the following four years (and it feels like four years in the theatre) we’re treated to a number of predicable, gossamer-thin sub-plots: Marco is talented but gets upset when his girlfriend goes behind his back to try to get ahead and instead lands on a casting couch, Joy is a classically-trained pianist but really wants to defy her parents and sing R&B, and Danny is just not good enough to be a professional dancer, attempts to throw himself in front of an E train, and opts to return home to teach ballet rather than pursuing a lucrative career as a gay go-go dancer.
OK, I made that last part up. Admit it: you’d have been more interested in seeing the film if it were actually part of the plot, right?
Alas, there’s nothing subversive or remotely steamy about "Fame" in 2009. The precursor had the audacity to tackle shocking issues in 1980: abortion, drug abuse, religion, and nudity. Here, an apparent attempt to latch onto the "High School Musical" demographic has crippled the film’s traction, leaving it largely without a significant thematic purpose in favor of a general admonishment that desire without hard work won’t get you fame. Duh.
Ironically, the only time the movie shows any real promise is when the teachers are on-screen. Kelsey Grammer, Megan Mullally, Debbie Allen (not reprising her original role), Bebe Neuwirth and Charles S. Dutton turn in earnest performances as teachers attempting to cull excellence from their students - alas, as they’re almost never in scenes together, it’s as if they’re talking to themselves. One particularly hysterical (if nonsensical) scene occurs when Mullally’s vocal teacher takes her students out to Lucky Cheng’s for karaoke (not likely), and then is coerced by them into chronicling her experiences attempting to score work on Broadway and quitting before she succeeded. "You know," she says emotionally, wistfully, with a far-off look in her eyes, "I could have done that." It’s a maddeningly stupid scene, made slightly less frustrating by the twinkle in Mullally’s eyes that seems to say something akin to, "Bite me." Because that’s the way to inspire kids to be teachers: insist that the only reason they should become one is if they’re unable to succeed otherwise.
In fact, there’s nothing truly effective about this film whatsoever; even the musical numbers and choreography (presented center stage thanks to Tancharoen’s dance pedigree) present awkwardly and resolve unsatisfactorily. It’s actually startling to consider the fact that this desensitized, lobotomized, lackluster series of creative individuals might represent the best of the industry; if so, turn in your Broadway tickets now. My guess is that it’s the best that could be bought for the pittance MGM was willing to spend for a formulaic repeat aimed at 11-year-old girls - and that the unfortunate talents of the "gifted" youngsters cast into the film had more to do with the production team’s lack of skills than it did their own.
Either way, the movie is a soulless, inconsequential, vapid, hideously boring waste of time. That’s a shame, given the courageous nature of its predecessor and the culture of instant fame-making we live with thanks to reality television today. This should have been a creatively fulfilling remake; instead, "Fame" just leaves you creatively famished.