Fame costs. And right here is where you start paying, in sweat.
— Principal Simms (Debbie Allen)
During the opening credits for Kevin Tancharoen’s Fame remake, the Hollywood stars who play the famed New York Academy of Performing Arts’ teachers get top billing. The youngsters who play the high school students are reduced to a “with” list. This is backwards. While there’s no doubt that the adults, including Bebe Neuwirth and Charles S. Dutton, are excellent. But this Fame, like the 1980 version, is all about the kids.
Youthful energy and struggle are central to the Fame franchise, and Tancharoen wisely doesn’t monkey around with that. Neither do he and screenwriter Allison Burnett change the general structure of the film, which again follows a small group of students at the school from “Audition Day,” through four years of high school, ending with their graduation performance. Several scenes and musical numbers reference or directly repeat the first film. The cafeteria scene from the original, for instance, in which the students break out into improvised (at least within the story’s logic) singing, jamming, and dancing, is included here. The specific tempo, steps, and riffs may be different, but the displays of exuberance, passion, and bodily possibility are the same.
What this Fame mostly does is update the details surrounding its story of these young people’s love of performance and desire for recognition. So, during auditions, one student performs a musical number from Chicago, inspired by the 2002 film version, not the 1975 Broadway production. Aspiring actors perform monologues as Travis Bickel from Taxi Driver and Janet Weiss from The Rocky Horror Picture Show; hardly the “classical” monologues one might expect at auditions for a prestigious performing arts school.
The technological and cultural differences of today are also foregrounded; cell phones, texting, YouTube, etc. Such upgrades — and especially and the current culture of narcissism and celebrity they foment — provide something like a foil for Fame, which extols hard work and authentic achievements. As Principal Simms (Debbie Allen) welcomes the incoming class, she warns them here at PA, “We don’t care about… fame” per se, or anyone’s desire to be on the cover of OK! magazine. Instead, she asserts, the school means to teach “what being a performing artist is really about.”
It’s a nice sentiment, but unfortunately Fame can’t live up to that ideal. Though on graduation day Jenny (Kay Panabaker) insists they measure “success” in registers other than “fame,” that’s precisely what her classmates want. Alice (Kherington Payne) and Joy (Anna Maria Perez de Tagle) both drop out of school when job offers beckon. Denise (Naturi Naughton) is offered a contract by a big name producer who launched the careers of Lauryn Hill and Alicia Keyes, and while Malik (Collins Pennie) says he doesn’t want to be just another rapper/actor from the “ghetto,” the rap game seems precisely where he is headed.
Amid these predictable trajectories, the film offers another specific update in its conservative representation of sex. The 1980 Fame didn’t shy away from tackling controversial subjects. Montgomery (Paul McCrane) struggled with his homosexuality and how, when, and to whom to come out, reflecting the state of gay liberation politics at the time of the original’s release. Now, there are apparently no gay students at PA. Kevin (Paul McGill) is coded in many ways as being gay, but this is merely implicit and his sexuality is in no way a part of his teen angst. His non-plight seems more of a mainstreaming fantasy of homo normativity as promulgated by the HRC than any reflection of the difficulties currently facing queer teens.
That first Fame also included significant storylines featuring interracial sex and romance, the sexual exploitation of minors, as well as teen pregnancy and abortion. This Fame avoids any such concerns or realities. It’s a largely sanitized vision of teen life, reflecting a generation of American youth raised on “abstinence only” sex education.
But those kids have also been raised online and in an increasingly sexually charged cultural atmosphere, which is also reflected in Fame. This can be primarily seen in the vignettes of the school’s dancers. Apparently forced to learn classical ballet, they really want to dance like video vixens. When left to their own devices and choreography, they come up with tiny little lingerie costumes (pantyhose with garter belts and high heels) and lots of bumping and grinding. This is, then, the real struggle faced by kids in today’s Fame — how to negotiate cultural demands for sexual morality and conservatism while maintaining outsized sexual personas in public.