"Fame," the original "high school musical," earns a sometimes toe-tapping remake that borrows scenes, situations and character "types" from its 1980 original.
But in filtering that gritty, edgy drama about the true costs of pursuing a life in the performing arts through a Disney-fied "HSM" lens, MGM has rubbed the edges off and scrubbed away all the grit. This "Fame" is a film without the guts to show Idolized America that, as Debbie Allen so memorably said way back when, "Fame costs, and right here's where you start paying."
There's no hint of the first "Fame's" struggles with substance abuse and sexuality, struggles that included abortion. Even the darker themes repeated in this film -- eager, talented and beautiful young people preyed upon by would be "producers," record execs and older acting peers -- are tidied up.
OK, fine. New York isn't the town it was back when Alan Parker was making his movie about the hyper-competitive New York High School for the Performing Arts. Times have changed, interracial romance isn't a big deal, nor is "coming out."
But you'd think if one was moved to include the stereotypical fey dancer and singer in the mix that you'd differentiate yourself from the bland "High School Musical" by at least admitting that, yeah, some gay people go into the performing arts, and there's no way you go to a performing arts high school without meeting them. A lot of them.
Here's what is perfect about this film from a guy who used to do Britney Spears videos (Kevin Tancharoen). The teachers were cast on the nose. Kelsey Grammer? He'd make a perfect music teacher, pushing would-be hip-hop producer Victor (Walter Perez) to stop trying to jazz up the masters.
"The only thing of value you can bring to Bach is your respect."
The great Broadway singer/dancer Bebe Neuwirth (Grammer's "Cheers" and "Frasier" co-star) is aptly cast as a dance teacher, and Charles S. Dutton a great choice as the acting teacher trying to instill bravery and "discipline" in his colorless (Kay Panabaker) pupil. Megan Mullally tries to make the thin-voiced teens "feel" "Someone to Watch Over Me," and Debbie Allen has been promoted to principal, presiding over this mob.
And the young actors are, to a one, dull. Naturi Naughton of "Notorious" is an underwritten pianist who really wants to sing, Paul Iacano has the hat and the camcorder but little spark as the would-be filmmaker. Kherington Payne doesn't suggest the passion and focus of a dancer with "tick off mommy and daddy" issues. Collins Pennie makes an impression as the "angry young black man" who needs to learn there's more to acting than pouting.
"Fame" gives us all four years of lessons learned, careers begun and hopes dashed, and that's just too much to cover with too many characters for this to gel. Quick sketches of characters, quicker sketches of their homelife, don't add to a complete portrait. And if you're going to censor this material in imitation of The Disney Channel's greatest hit, you'd better fill in the holes with fun. "Fame" forgets that.
Two stars (out of four)
STARRING: Naturi Naughton, Asher Book, Kay Panabaker and Paul McGill
DIRECTOR: Kevin Tancharoen
RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes
RATING: PG for thematic material including teen drinking, a sexual situation and language.
THE LOWDOWN: A reinvention of the original 1980 hit film, "Fame" follows a talented group of dancers, singers, actors and artists over four years.