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Draw a line from the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland "Let's put on a show" teen musicals of the 1940s to popular contemporary television shows like Glee and So You Think You Can Dance and about halfway along you'll find Fame (1980), whose success surely provided a model for the recent spate of youth-oriented dance movies. And, as proof of the film's enduring appeal, toward the end of that line you'll find Fame again, in an updated version released theatrically in 2009, joining the trend of dance dramas it inspired.
Fame took earlier teen musicals a step in a new direction by introducing drama into its ensemble story, following a group of students through their studies at the New York High School of the Performing Arts over the course of four years, from the tough auditions required for acceptance through graduation. Echoing the multi-plotted 1950s melodramas about young people struggling to find fame, fortune, and romance in the big city, some of the characters achieve success, others heartache, and most learn valuable life lessons along with their performance training.
The style of the film also marked a change from the past by presenting its musical numbers in quick cuts with multiple angles and crowded, kinetic frames, an approach that would soon become common in the burgeoning music video form of the 1980s. Fame may not be as visually splintered and rhythmically hyper as recent musicals by Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!, 2001) and Rob Marshall (Chicago, 2002; Nine, 2009) or the hot trend of dance films like Save the Last Dance (2001) and Step Up (2006), but it's a significant step away from Fred Astaire's insistence on being filmed in long, fluid takes that basked in the joy and wonder of a skilled body in continuous motion. Today, dance numbers seem to be created primarily in the editing room, a cacophony of extreme close-ups on flailing limbs and spinning heads, often begging the question of whether the performers are really dancers at all. The beginnings of that style are already evident here, but to its credit, Fame at least gives its cast plenty of chances to display their considerable talents and training. This was also one of the first films to use digital audio recording for its soundtrack.
Fame did big business and earned mostly favorable reviews, garnering awards and nominations from the Golden Globes, BAFTA and Cesars (respectively, the British and French equivalents of our Academy Awards), and Oscar® nods for editing (thanks to those fast-moving musical numbers), sound, Christopher Gore's original screenplay, and music. It won Best Music - Original Score and Best Song (the title tune).
That song was inescapable in the early 80s, catapulting cast member Irene Cara to stardom with a Number 1 hit. Ms. Cara's performances of the song were so ubiquitous over the next few years, appearing on everything from variety shows to awards programs, that the comedy satire show Saturday Night Live did a wicked parody ("It's always the same/Same!/I sing the same song forever"), with SNL cast member Gail Matthius (as Cara) complaining that the constant wearing of Cara's signature skin-tight spandex was giving her yeast infections.
Cara's character, Coco, was originally supposed to have a major rivalry with star dance student Lydia, but the filmmakers decided early on not to overshadow Coco, and Lydia's role was reduced to the part of an audition judge seen in the first ten minutes of the movie. The part was played by dancer-actress-teacher Debbie Allen, who reprised it, much expanded, in the hit TV series spin-off that aired from 1982 to 1987. Allen also directed and produced for the TV series and appeared in the updated 2009 film version, although not as the same character. Three other original cast members also moved to the TV show: Gene Anthony Ray, Lee Curreri, and Albert Hague, an actual teacher at the school whose acting career was relaunched by his work in the movie.
There were several parallels between Gene Anthony Ray and his character, Leroy. Like the part he played, Ray was an inner city kid with abundant raw talent but very little training. Rebellious on screen and off, Ray had attended the High School of the Performing Arts but was either expelled or dropped out (depending on which version one hears) in conflict with the school's high level of discipline. Ray skipped classes at the school he was attending at the time of auditions to try out for the movie and quit after his career took off. He died of a stroke at the age of 41 in 2003, a few months after taping a Fame reunion special for British television.
Michael Gore, who won Academy Awards® for his score and title song (lyrics by Dean Pitchford), is the brother of 60s pop sensation Leslie Gore, who co-wrote with her brother another Oscar®-nominated song in the movie, "Out Here on My Own," marking the first time in Academy history that two songs were nominated from the same film.
Screenwriter Christopher Gore - no relation to Michael and Leslie - was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987 and died in May 1988 at the age of 43.
Despite the efforts of the city's motion picture office, the New York school board would not allow the filmmakers to shoot at the actual High School of the Performing Arts on West 46th Street in Manhattan. Exteriors were shot in front of an old church across the street, and Haaren High and PS 122, which were no longer in use at the time of filming, were used for the interiors (PS 122 is now a public performance space).
The school's principal, Richard Klein, had some reservations about the script of Fame: language, a suspected pregnancy, hints of minor drug use. But he thought the story captured a certain reality about student life at the unique school and appreciated what the film could do for his students. Nevertheless, he obeyed the board's strong condemnation of the production, although he refused to stand in the way of students who wanted to try out for parts and extra roles. Director Alan Parker interviewed roughly 2500 young performers (among them an unknown Madonna), and one of the school's students, Laura Dean, was cast in a principal role, shooting it on her summer break.
The High School of the Performing Arts has had a long and sometimes rocky history. Founded in 1947 by educator Franklin Keller, it grew from a small vocational program into a major center for training young people in music, dance, and drama, despite constant funding threats. In 1984, the school was subsumed into its parent school to form the Fiorello La Guardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. Fame did much to popularize and promote the notion of separate educational facilities where students could train in the arts while continuing their basic academic studies.
Noted alumni of the school include Al Pacino, Suzanne Pleshette, Ellen Barkin, Liza Minnelli, Ben Vereen, and Alvin Ailey.
Director: Alan Parker
Producers: David De Silva, Alan Marshall
Screenplay: Christopher Gore
Cinematography: Michael Seresin
Editing: Gerry Hambling
Art Direction: Ed Wittstein
Original Music: Michael Gore
Cast: Eddie Barth (Angelo), Irene Cara (Coco), Lee Curreri (Bruno), Laura Dean (Lisa), Anne Meara (Mrs. Sherwood), Gene Anthony Ray (Leroy), Debbie Allen (Lydia).
C-135m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Rob Nixon