“Fame, I’m gonna live forever!” Or for at least 40 years. Back in the 80s, Fame gave a fresh take on the big screen musical and instantly left a mark on pop culture. The movie follows eight students (musicians, actors, dancers) at New York’s High School of Performing Arts. Working from a script written by Christopher Gore, director Alan Parker captures all the highs and lows over a four-year period. Let’s remember, remember, remember, remember (yeah, I did it) Fame.
During the audition process we meet the fresh hopefuls looking to secure a spot at the prestigious PA school. Coco (Irene Cara) is a confident triple threat. Bruno (Lee Curreri) is the innovative musician. Lisa (Laura Dean) lacks confidence and direction, but still manages to get into the dance department. Shy Doris (Maureen Teefy) gets pushed into auditioning by her overbearing stage mother. She’s joined in the drama dept. by closeted Montgomery (Paul McCrane) and class clown Ralph (Barry Miller). Rounding out the group is Leroy (Gene Anthony Ray), who quickly impresses with his dancing. Parker cuts between the main characters and a bunch of other wannabes, establishing the culture of the school. Everyone is striving for something.
The kids arrive for freshman year (with the thoughtful “Dogs in the Yard” playing over a montage) where they discover that PA is not an easy school. It’s especially difficult for Leroy since he’s illiterate. I could have done without the stereotypical “inner city youth who can’t read and the hard-nosed teacher (Ann Meara) who pushes him to learn” storyline. But it was 1980, so what do you expect? Doris and Montgomery become fast friends as the awkward outsiders. She worries she’s not colorful enough for this school. Whereas he is trying to blend into the background.
The big rousing number in this year is “Hot Lunch Jam”. The students dance on tables, bang on the piano, and sing about macaroni and baloney. It’s a fun song.
Hilary (Antonia Franceschi) arrives on the scene in the dance department and promptly pisses off Coco by going after her boyfriend, Leroy. Lisa is kicked out of the department by her harsh teacher. We think she’s going to jump in front of a subway train, but she just dumps her dance gear on the tracks instead. I’m glad Gore spared the audience from the usual teen suicide story. It would have been too afterschool special. Meanwhile, Montgomery comes out to his drama class. A safe space for a gay guy if there ever was one.
Bruno is reluctant to share his music with others, so his enthusiastic dad, a taxi driver, steals his tape and blasts it from his cab outside of the school. In the most over the top musical moment in the film, students rush out of their classes and start dancing in the street, or on top of cars, as “Fame” plays. Off-screen the song was huge, going to number #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and winning the Oscar for Best Original Song.
Doris comes out of her shell and rebels against her bossy mother. She also falls for Ralph, leaving Montgomery out in the cold. He expresses his loneliness with “Is it Okay if I Call You Mine”, a very pretty sad ballad.
My favorite song on the soundtrack, “Out Here on My Own”, is featured in this year. Coco’s vocals and the beautiful piano accompanying her are perfect. The track became the film’s second hit single and garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. It was the first time two songs from the same movie were nominated.
Ralph’s stand-up comedy career takes off, but his need to party like a Belushi after his shows hurts his personal life. Luckily, he comes down to earth before something tragic happens. Meanwhile, Hilary gets pregnant and decides to have an abortion. She won’t let a baby get in the way of her ballet career. On a better note, Leroy is offered a spot in Alvin Ailey’s dance company.
In the worst moment in the movie, a sleazy producer manipulates Coco into taking off her top for a “screen test”. She’s sobbing as the camera rolls. But there’s no follow up since we don’t see her again until the end of the film. I would have liked to see more of her POV. Without that, the scene feels exploitative. Maybe that was the point, to show how terribly young women trying to break into the industry are treated. Still, it could have been handled better by Parker and Gore. That’s actually a recurring problem I have with the film. They’re constantly bouncing around from character to character. I wish there was more of a plot and time to flesh out these stories.
The finale comes with the graduation ceremony and a performance of “I Sing the Body Electric”. Lisa, Coco, and Montgomery have solos, Leroy dances; and Bruno plays the piano, finally sharing his music with the world. The lyrics talk about looking forward to the you yet to come and knowing you’ll shine brightly then. It’s appropriate for these kids with their dreams of success, yearning to shed their old skin and be reborn as stars. I also like the arrangement with the full orchestra, rock band, and choir. The song does get schmaltzy, but it’s still works for me. It’s a touching end to the movie and a great sendoff for these characters headed towards their next chapter.