It is no secret among my friends and loved ones that I am sucker for a good coordinated dance number.
I love coordinated dance numbers in the way that only a klutzy white girl with no dance talent can. If a movie – any movie – includes a dance number, it is automatically ten percent better in my eyes. And if it’s a movie based on a musical, I have just one rule: nail the big dance numbers. If you nail the big dance numbers, I will swallow whatever half-baked plotline you’ve got hook, line and sinker.
Starring: Bebe Neuwirth, Megan Mullally, Naturi Naughton
Written by: Allison Burnett
Which is why going to see “Fame” was so dreadfully disappointing. The film, based off of a musical, 80s film and TV show, should have been a slam dunk. Young, bright-eyed singers, dancers and actors! Big New York performance art school! Bebe Neuwirth! Debbie freaking Allen!! All director Kevin Tanchareon had to do was round up a group of talented teenagers who were willing to play themselves, turn on a camera and go.
What I don’t understand is the decision Tancharoen made to give the most screen time and dramatic arch to Jenny (Kay Panabaker) and Marco (Asher Book), possibly the two most boring theater kids I have ever come across in my entire life. It isn’t just that they’re not terribly good actors (though they’re not). It’s that they can’t even sing or dance, and have absolutely no cinematic presence. Book has generic boy band good looks, and we never actually see Panabaker’s character learning acting, the art she professes to be so passionate about. One awkward scene has our white bread heroine almost seduced by a big-time TV star during an “audition” (my favorite line in the entire film: as the actor paws ferociously at her sweater in front of a video camera, she asks indignantly, “Is this even a casting meeting?!”)
The most talented one among the teens is Naturi Naughton, who has a wonderful voice and actually seems to know how to play the piano. Naughton, as the sheltered Denise, is an R&B singer with strict command of her voice. Her acting is ho-hum, but she’s at least able to keep us a little interested.
Interestingly enough it is the teachers of the Performing Arts school that captivate the most attention, though all of them are underused. There’s nothing better than watching Megan Mullally make vocal love to “You Took Advantage of Me” or Debbie Allen be her resplendent, timeless self. The most honest moment in the film comes when Bebe Neuwirth, who plays the school’s ballet teacher, gently and compassionately tells a boy from Iowa that he’s just not a strong enough dancer to actually make a living at it. “But I work harder than anyone else here” he pleads, blasting apart the usual lie that if you work hard enough and want it enough than you’ll succeed.
But the movie doesn’t make us care about the boy from Iowa, or any of the other kids for that matter. We’re supposed to be rooting for them to succeed, but I don’t think I understood who any of them really were. Why do I care that the bitchy girl got into Complexions, when her character’s so pallid and generic I can’t even remember her name?
As to the dance numbers: A few of them were pretty good, especially a beautifully realized number set at a Halloween party. But none of them made me want to applaud. And the songs, which have been reconstituted for more of a hip-hop vibe, are generally showcased in the film but really seem more like background noise. I know Tanchareon was going for a grittier aesthetic, but the result is a little listless, as if they’re only begrudgingly breaking into song.
The whole idea behind the modern musical is that whatever you’re feeling is so powerful it can only be conveyed by belting out a high C. I love coordinated dance numbers because sometimes I want to pirouette my feelings. But I have a hard time believing that any of these characters feel anything so strongly they needed jazz hands to explain. In the end they’re just empty bodies on a stage.
The movie had such a good vibe in the early stages before we actually started to shoot it. In fact, it had such good energy going on, that it was a pity it ended up being cut-up/chop-chopped and as you said, ‘sanitized’. There were a lot of scenes that unfortunately did not make the final cut. These scenes showed stories about true friendship, love, passion, relationships, sexuality, disappointments and successes in detail thru character development. Though the locked version was ‘tamed down’ because of the PG rating, a DVD directors cut would probably show the actual stories of the 10 different characters.
It seemed that Mr. Tancharoen forgot (maybe intentionally?) that he had 10 characters to develop. It appeared that there was concentration on one, Ms. Panabaker (and how could her character pass such a rigid audition?), Mr. Book, Mr. Pennie, Ms. Naughton (who sang very well) and Ms. Payne. Whatever happened to Mr. Iacono, Mr. McGill, Ms. Perez de Tagle, Ms. Flores (what character did she portray?) and Mr. Perez? What are their life stories or experiences?
Being part of the crew, I witnessed a number of scenes where Joy (Anna Maria), Kevin (Paul McG, who plays a gay dancer…did you notice?) and Neil (Paul I) developed and established their friendship. There was a dramatic/touching scene where Joy and Neil made the whole crew shed tears and I thought that would have been a clincher in the film. But sad to say, it ended up in the editors bin. Ms. Perez de Tagle should have been given more substantial scenes. She really is a “Joy” to watch. If I may add, Mr. McGill as handsome as he is, is should have been given the same opportunity. In my opinion, these three characters would have been able to show the true color of FAME.
Needless to say, Mr. Tancharoen should have captured the true essence of the “New York PA youth” by utilizing and developing all of his characters evenly. In my opinion, he could have done that, if he had chosen to do so. However, it seems that Mr. Tancharoen concentrated on just one character’s development……….Jenny (Ms. Panabaker)….whom he had ‘captured’ and “captivated” way before the filming was over. Sad, utterly sad, but true.
Give it a chance, view it in it’s entirety. Maybe a PG-13 rating would have made the FAME re-invention……….’live forever’
KW, Beverly Hills, CA