Was one Fame not enough? Oh, sing the answer in one voice, please. I must admit to being derelict in my film reviewing duties by never having seen the 1980 original. It doesn’t really jump out on my must-see old movies list alongside Citizen Kane and Jules and Jim.
I’ll concede there might be films worth remaking. But most films worth re-introducing to a new generation would be unthinkable to remake. No one would touch Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven or Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. Even if you replicated the scenes impressively, there is little chance to recreate the artistic signature. And there lies the dilemma of the remake.
In practice, remakes need fungibility and forgettability. By the former, I mean they must have some form of cultural currency that is interchangeable across generations. By the latter, I mean the original must be successful enough to recognize but forgettable enough to blur inevitable comparisons, lest the new version be found wanting. However these qualities usually mean we’re not working with material touched by a specifying greatness. Even to think a film is fit to remake suggests it is either flexible or disposable or both, and it is a little insulting.
Fame’s reaching-for-the-stars storyline certainly has potential for cross-generational appeal. And the earlier film would not be deemed so sacred as to be untouchable or unapproachable. For that reason one might dream of a good ,daring remake to this material, but this isn’t it.
We all know the basic idea of Fame, a film about the New York School for Performing Arts. They want to live forever. They want to know how to fly (High!). They live. They love. They learn. They dance, and sing, and act, and, er, rap. Some win. Some fail.
Early in the film, a voice teacher criticizes a student for singing a song but not feeling it. Likewise, Fame lines up the notes but not the feeling. There’s the student with the demanding parents. And the one with fuddy-duddy parents. And the other one with demanding parents. And the working class one. And the kid with the rage. And the kid from Iowa. Because no one actually lives in Iowa. It’s only kept around as a constructed other for New York and LA so that bumpkin characters can have someplace to come from. We dip into a little of each, but Fame only generates poignancy by resorting to the most over-the-top things – a quick suicide attempt or a teacher’s crushing stories of showbiz failures past.
In a film throwing performances at you, there have to be a few that work. Most of them involve the silk-voiced Naturi Naughton and her singing. And there are bits and pieces of art direction, particularly a trippy Halloween ball thrown by creative students. That said, I wonder if directors have lost the ability or ambition to film sweeping musical numbers. If you watch old musicals, they mainly cut only when Cyd Charisse stumbled in her four-inch heels. These are chopped up and stitched together pretty heavily. We call that cheating.
The great leap for Fame is to find reason to take another bow in this age. In 1980, the sweat-behind the starshine idea might have seemed fresh. Since then, the concept has been adopted into numerous television shows. American Idol is in a sense a live version with real people and slicker packaging. Perhaps that’s why the filmmakers bet on it. But where this idea once might have been novel, these shows have made it old hat by now, and spoiled us on access to the real thing. The view backstage no longer lures only a movie camera.