With the likes of the High School Musical and Hannah Montana juggernauts out there demonstrating a ready market for teen musicals, Fame was probably an inevitability. Not to be too cynical about it, but there was money to be made.
The original Fame (1980), directed by Alan Parker, followed a handful of students at New York's High School for the Performing Arts from their nerve-wracking auditions through to their senior years. It won a few Oscars (for Original Musical Score and Best Original Song), spawned a hit song, a TV series, a theatrical musical and now this remake, updated with hip-hop-influenced song and dance. Of the original cast, Debbie Allen returns: Then she was the dance teacher; now she's the stern-but-caring principal of the high school.
Fame, like its inspiration, follows the trials and tribulations of talented students trying to make it through high school while simultaneously trying to make it in show biz. The movie has some terrific musical numbers, with fresh, energetic dancing and music. Naturi Naughton, in particular, stands out as Denise, a classically trained pianist who, it turns out, is also a funky fine singer (if only her overbearing Dad would let her get her groove on!). The entire cast of kids is utterly adorable, and ready to take their spots on the pages of Teen People (although more than a few of them look well past their teen years).
If only they'd been given stories and characters. The structure of Fame - written by Allison Burnett and based on Christopher Gore's original - follows the students through each year of high school. Following one character with any depth through four years of teen life would be hard enough. Fame ambitiously tries to track several kids, each with a distinctive talent (dancer, filmmaker, singer, actor, rapper...) and set of personal problems, but there's little time to do more than hurriedly present an issue or difficulty before the titles yoink us into another year - each time doing so at a supposed moment of crisis and a potential life/career turning point. But with no follow-through, any questions about what happened next are left unanswered.
The plotlines are little more than clichés; the characters don't develop or change. There's angry inner-city guy, bored Upper West Side girl, undisciplined cocky guy who doesn't care about Bach, timid girl et cetera. They have PG-rated afterschool-special problems, dumbed down and sanitized for a 'tween market (who is already probably too sophisticated for this). There's no central character or storyline, and the drama is superficial and tacked-on; the real focus here is on performance, while the rest (plot, character, emotion) is just filler (and minimal filler at that).
If the characters had any substance, the performance segments of Fame would have a chance to grow organically out of their lives and experiences. After all, what would be more natural than students at a performing arts high school spontaneously performing? Instead, the performance segments are, for the most part, separate, energetic (and welcome) interlopers from a different and better movie.
The teachers, played by veterans of stage and screen (Bebe Neuwirth, Charles S. Dutton, Megan Mullaly and Kelsey Grammer), manage to flesh out their roles despite underwritten parts and parsimonious shares of screentime, demonstrating nicely the enduring value of experience and screen presence.