Fame (2009)

Rated: PG for thematic material including teen drinking, a sexual situation and language.
Length: 107 minutes
Grade: D+BCC=C
Budget: $18 million
Box Office: $74 million (22 U.S., 49 Intl., 3 DVD)

Written by: Allison Burnett (Untraceable, Autumn in New York) and Christopher Gore (1980’s Fame)
Directed by: Kevin Tancharoen (Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll, and a Britney Spears performance)
Starring: Kay Panabaker, Naturi Naughton, Kherington Payne, Asher Book, Paul McGill, Paul Iacono, Collins Pennie, and Anna Maria Perez de Tagle, with Megan Mullally, Bebe Neuwirth, Debbie Allen, Charles S. Dutton, and Kelsey Grammer.

This remake of the 1980 classic-turned-TV-series is a hyper-condensed 107 minute tale of eight students’ high school experience at the prestigious New York Performing Arts academy.

Entertainment Value: D+
I watched Fame growing up, so I was really excited about this, and I assumed with Debbie Allen’s involvement, it would be excellent. It was merely okay. The characters are all interesting, and I think you get to see a lot of up-and-coming talent here, especially Naturi Naughton and Kay Panabaker. However, the film was doomed from the beginning by trying to condense such a long span of time with so many different characters. There are many potent lines, but it feels like a series of scenes and lines rather than a real interwoven movie. It wants to be a four-year television show (which it easily could be), but it only winds up being a choppy, artificial hour and a half teen neo-drama. The weird thing is how the original movie managed to make this approach work whereas this one didn’t. Maybe it was because the original Fame dealt with true inner-city stories whereas these kids (mostly) come from privilege and intact families. Also, and maybe it’s just me, but I wanted to see this be more dance and music centered rather than so much on singing. Give me the brilliant dancing of Gene Anthony Ray, not the voice-processed singing of Asher Book! However, there is one really bright spot here:

Superficial Content: B
Drugs/Alcohol A-, Sex/Nudity B+, Violence B, Language C+
One girl gets drunk as a filmmaking experiment. There are two sexual scenes, one with boys watching a girl dance and another with a boy trying to seduce a girl in his TV show trailer. A boy talks about losing his sister to gang violence and another boy almost tries to kill himself in the Subway. Kids-in-mind and Commonsensemedia both say there was a smattering of medium profanity, but I didn’t even notice it. I may be going tone deaf on mild profanity. I found this to be a genuinely PG movie, which really surprised me in a good way compared to what I expected, especially since the original was rightly R. Still, it’s neither something young kids should watch nor will they find it interesting. PG-10 or so is about right.

Significant Content: C
Actually, the movie doesn’t preach very much, which is interesting. It more seems to present a variety of stories and views without telling you which it supports, other than that all raw talent will benefit from honest criticism and effective coaching. Not everyone is cut out to be a star. There’s no particular correlation between moral virtue and talent. Fame is a fleeting and fickle mistress. And some people take for granted the things they have which others would metaphorically kill to have.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
This part tears me in two directions. On the one hand, I actually thought the variety of story arcs presented gives plenty to consider, especially because they really are all so different. But they are all so lightly treated that you really have to script in the missing scenes and dialogue yourself. The movie should have been three hours long to do what it was trying and be effective. If the target audience was 13-year-olds who watch American Idol, this probably worked.
Discussion Questions:
~There’s a saying that, “It’s better to be a big fish in small pond than a small fish in a big pond.” What does this mean? Do you think it’s true? To whom in this movie does it apply?
~When people are the best in their smaller environments and always praised for it, why is it so hard for them to adapt to environments with a high concentration of talent like PA or New York City or an Ivy League school? Why do talented people sometimes find it very hard to take constructive criticism?
~One of the themes in this movie is the wisdom of parents and the idea of submitting to them. Discuss the various characters’ relationships with their parents and which, if any, of them are “honoring.”
~Why is it so important to base your self-identity on Christ instead of on your popularity or your ability to make it in show business? Is the solution suggested by the school that you should work on being an excellent performer and don’t worry about the accolades a workable alternative?
Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Malik telling the story of his sister’s death and Mr. Dowd responding by challenging him to reveal himself and the impact on him. Why does he get angry? Is it because this is the first time someone has called his bluff in putting on a performance which is meant to seem bold and tender but really keeps his secret even more hidden? How is Malik wearing a mask in this scene? As a Christian, are you ever scared to reveal things about you which you haven’t conquered yet? How is revealing things that impress other people not really self-revelation at all?
~Kevin being told that he’s never going to be a professional dancer, his reaction, and his subsequent choice. Do you consider him a failure? Is it ever a failure to realign your expectations of your life to your actual potential? Does it take more courage to keep trying at something you’re not good at or to find some level of competence or endeavor where you really can shine?
~Denise being told by her father that she has no business doing anything but playing classical piano. What do you think of her subsequent decision? How can you tell when parents should be obeyed and when they shouldn’t be? ~Can it ever be honoring to a parent to disobey him?
Malik’s mother confronting him about secretly attending the school. Mallik says, “Somebody out there’s got to make it. Why not me?” Do you think it’s healthy for people to dream about show business success, fame, and money? What percentage of people do in fact wind up succeeding in this arena? Is this basically a lottery mindset? His mother says that the problem is he’s trying to do what everyone else is trying to do. What do you think of her perspective?
~Neil persuading his father to invest in his movie. Why do you think the movie didn’t dwell more on this particular plot line?
Overall Grade: C
Lots of things that you could talk about here, obviously. But as a piece of coherent storytelling, it just doesn’t really add up to much. But at least much younger kids can watch this than the original. If you have a child into performing arts, I suggest you rent the old TV show on DVD and watch those episodes.

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