Now Playing on Netflix: A Tale of Two Fames

Posted on 30 September 2010 by ChloeG

I’ll admit this upfront. I know it will be a mark of shame forever among my Movie Chop Shop peers, should they ever deign to read my reviews, but I feel it’s necessary, given what I’m about to do, and what I will inevitably continue to do.

I love dance movies. I own a handful of them. It’s so bad that I’ve been accused of learning the choreography in a couple while no one was looking (I plead the fifth). I watch them as a compulsion, and I enjoy them whole-heartedly. I believe they deserve to be reviewed for what they are and what they are not. Here goes.

Fame.

I saw the remake in theaters largely because of the inimitable Kerrington from “So You Think You Can Dance” (yes, I watch that, too). I would have waited until it hit Netflix, but for her. She has a gigantic, eccentric, flamboyant spirit that sparkles in the dark, and I love her for it. It turns out she can carry a character, too, but that’s hardly relevant here. I knew at the time that if I were to review the 2009 version, I needed to watch the 1980 film as well, so that I could critique the source material appropriately and assign accords and blame as they were due. There’s plenty to go around.

Fortunately for me, the 1980 movie is available instantly, and I have seized the chance to tell you all about both.

It’s always interesting to watch the before-and-after of a remake pairing, especially ones that are as closely related as these two are. The 2009 movie pulled dialogue from 1980 whole cloth, and most of the scenes, if not direct descendents, are bell-ringingly familiar. Seeing what the director, the choreographer, the cinematographer, and the actors do with what is essentially the same script is fascinating and telling about who we are and who we have been as a movie-watching community.

Fame is a movie in 5 acts. Auditions, freshman year, sophomore year, junior year, and senior year. The hairstyles change, the clothes change, the makeup changes. It’s that simple. They sing, they dance, they act, they play. As far as major plot elements go, that about sums it up. Stuff happens, sure, but what you come away from each movie with is an impression of the performances. That’s the point.

I came into my 1980 Fame-watching experience completely ready to tell you that 2009 screws it up. The production quality is great, the performances are stunning, and the hosiery is mesmerizing, sure, but there is no beat, no rhythm, no melody to the movie itself. I had some smirky plan to talk about how a movie with such awareness of musicality in its players has none of its own left over. Long live the original!

The problem is this. 1980 gets the rhythm right. Somehow, in a way that I can’t explain, the shorter scenes and orchestral transitions work better. Senior Year doesn’t flash onto the screen with all the subtlety of a Law & Order DUN-DUN! It flows musically and pleasingly. But that’s about all it gets right. Well, that’s all it gets better (hard to say the original is actually wrong…). And, for all that added nuance, I was left with a somewhat desperate feeling of ‘so what?’.

The American love affair with closed plotlines lives strong in me, and Fame 2009 actually cares what happened to the sundry semi-leads. Performing arts are hard, really hard, and most people don’t make it, but 2009 ends with hope, with a plan.

Fame 1980 just… ends. Ta da! Roll credits. The 2009 version also doesn’t leave you wondering the whole movie, after all of the bustle of the auditions – why did he get in? Why are they keeping her? The 2009 movie may be less gutsy (and a lot less nude), but it is also somehow more real. The best dancer in the school really does do the best, and the weakest one really does get sent home. Not all actors can sing.
More importantly, Fame 2009 gets the point. Fame is about performing. Striving. Competing. Wanting. The joy of it is in the creative spirit of the performers themselves. The conflict is in the not-there-enoughness of the arts. It doesn’t get distracted with the high school stuff, though both movies have their share of in-and-out of love. In each rendition of the plot, the reliance on a very broad (often confusing) array of lead-ish characters leads to a lack of deep connection to any specific character. Something else needs to carry the audience through to the end of the movie. And Fame 2009 has a more ample portion of that something else. It just loses its meter along the way.

If I had to pick one to watch, it would be the 2009 version. It has performing muscle that the premier lacks, and when it comes down to it, apparently that’s what I’m really looking for in a movie. I just hope that these two particular data points don’t actually convict us, the movie viewing audience, of a declining attention span and a certain tone-deafness for tempo the way it would seem. We should be demanding all things from our movies, not just bright lights and distracting dazzle.
If you’re bored on a theoretical Saturday afternoon, though, Fame 1980 isn’t a bad way to pass the time. Groan at the hair, cringe at the clothes, but settle in to enjoy one of the foundational performing arts school movies, all the same. In my opinion, they’re all worth it.

The metrics:

  • The simple truth is that this is a one-time-watch movie. And I wouldn’t tie anyone to a chair to make sure that they’d seen it. Watch it, don’t watch it; I’ll watch them all, anyway.

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