Blu-Ray Review: Fame

In what I’m sure is an attempt to capitalize on the 2009 remake of the same name, the original Fame from 1980 is getting a cleaned up re-release on Blu-Ray.  Director Alan Parker’s 1980 film chronicles the lives of a group of students/performers attending New York City’s High School for the Performing Arts.  Beginning with the intense audition process and culminating with a graduation four years later, the film is a gritty portrayal of teenage artistry and the desire to evolve their craft into something more.  However, despite the lofty ambitions, I found the film often unfocused, trying to follow too many stories at one time, and never staying with a story long enough to make it worth the effort.

Throughout the course of the film, we watch the struggles of these artists, dancers, actors and singers.  There are several fascinating characters, and yet the struggle to follow so much at once shortchanges what should have been a more concise film.  Alternating between the intensity of the school and the intensity of their lives, the film is choppy and uneven. 

It doesn’t help that the film can’t decide whether or not it’s a musical.  Being at a school that focuses on the arts naturally lends itself to musical numbers, but when the music erupts onto the streets of New York, it’s jarring and awkward.  If the film embraced this musicality and was a musical throughout, this might have been easier to accept, but the rarity of these moments enhances the lack of focus.

However, the movie looks great.  Filmed at a real performing arts high school in New York, with many of the school’s real students in the film, there is an authenticity throughout.  With the exception of the musical numbers, there is never a moment that feels produced.  Shot very naturalistically, it occasionally takes on the nature of a documentary; one in which we simply observe these students and their lives.

The acting of the film is a mixed bag.  Occasionally great and often terrible, it was surprising to see such an uncomfortable mix of talent.  Everybody seems to be trying really hard, but it often feels as if they are trying too hard.  The actors playing the students seem so desperate to convey the talent behind their characters that they end up overplaying them as people.  It doesn’t help that the story would cut away everytime I’d start to get invested in a performance. 

Ironically, most of the cast ended up not making it big in the industry.  A few did, of course, but many of them just disappeared.  One of the interesting features on the Blu-Ray is a video commentary with several of these actors.  When an icon appears on the screen, you can activate this feature and watch them recording a modern day commentary track.  It is fascinating to see these people thirty years later talking about their performances and experiences making the film.  There is also a commentary track with Parker that runs the full length of the film.

Interestingly, they have also included a short documentary released with the film in 1980.  I love vintage behind-the-scenes features, and this is a pretty comprehensive one.  While it runs just over 10 minutes, it shows the filming of several sequences, and has interviews with Parker and several cast members.  There is also an 11-minute modern day documentary looking at the real school that inspired the film.  The school has been updated since filming, but it’s still fascinating to get such a thorough look at the location as well as interviews with several students currently attending.  This was a nice touch, creating a parallel with the students of today to the students of the film.

The only other extra is the film’s three-minute trailer, which sells the film exactly as it is.  A showcase for teenage talent with scattered plot throughout.  I would have liked more focus and payoffs to several of the stories, but regardless, it’s an interesting film.  I haven’t seen the remake, so I don’t know how they compare, but I can’t imagine it’s a whole lot better.  Having also inspired a television series, this was obviously a very popular film.  It was even nominated for six Oscars (it only won two).  I enjoyed it somewhat, but it wasn’t good enough to warrant a spinoff and a remake.  This is a school worth visiting once, but I have no desire to return.

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