On The Aisle
By Tony Macklin
It’s a party. “Fame” rocks! At least part of the time. At its best. It also sputters.
“Fame” is not as bad as I feared given the deluge of negative reviews. If you’re a tolerant viewer, you’ll find something to like.
“Fame” is a “reinvention” of the popular 1980s movie about the four-year matriculation by students at the New York Academy of the Performing Arts, known familiarly as P.A.
Perhaps the major theme of the 2009 version is the emphasis on hard work. In a contemporary culture that stands in line expecting to become celebrities, it’s a nice antidote to the contemporary rage for easy fame.
The movie generally is decently cast. The best are Naturi Naughton (Denise), who really is a talented singer, and Charles S. Dutton who retains his humanity as a committed teacher of theater.
And it’s good to see Debbie Allen, who appeared in the original movie and also was Lydia for five years (1982-1987) in the “Fame” television series. In the new movie she effectively portrays the woman in charge of the school.
Kherington Payne, the one nod to celebrity, a finalist in season four of “So You Think You Can Dance,” portrays Alice, a contemporary dancer who breaks hearts.
There are several nondescript actors, and there are some wasted actors, such as Bebe Neuwirth, as a teacher of dance.
There are three actors not equal to their tasks. Kay Panabaker has the crucial role of Jenny, whom the movie dictates that men yearn for.
Kay seems to be a nice girl, but she has no recognizable talent at all. Her voice is very thin, as is her appeal. She’s not as cute as a button; she’s more just a button.
Kelsey Grammer seems medicated as he somnolently plays a music teacher. He has never been as solemn. I swear I saw him nap on screen.
But the movie has its biggest crash, about halfway through, when Megan Mullally (Fran) takes the stage to sing a shrill solo in a club. It’s embarrassing, especially when her students rave about her toneless performance.
Her toneless performance mirrors the toneless script. Allen tells one student who’s a failure at dance, “You might make a wonderful teacher.” Or a third-rate screenwriter.
Christopher Gore did the original script. He died in 1988 so he doesn’t have to see what the present writer Allison Burnett has done to his material.
Burnett avoids any hint of originality. He even has students in 2009 do bits from DeNiro in “Taxi Driver” and “All That Jazz.” They were exhausted 20 years ago.
Burnett takes literary pumice to his work, leaving it without any edges or depth. He is very conventional; all his scenes and relationships are pat, obvious and threadbare. I didn’t remember who he was until I looked him up. I don’t have a vendetta against Burnett. I don’t even know him, but I think as a writer he is an embalmer.
He destroyed Charles Baxter’s novel when he wrote the screenplay for Lakeshore Entertainment’s “Feast of Love.” Now he’s done a job on Lakeshore Entertainment’s “Fame.” What does this guy have on Lakeshore?
Lakeshore is considering John O’Hara’s classic novel “Appointment in Samarra.” Please, please, please, Lakeshore, don’t let Burnett anywhere near O’Hara.
The director of “Fame,” Kevin Tancharoen was assistant to the tour director of TVs “Britney Spears Live from Las Vegas” and moved up to co-directing “Britney Spears Live from Miami.” In “Fame” he has a penchant for crowded screens and full hallways.
Tancharoen is able to make Fame’s best scenes rousing and rollicking. The cafeteria jam is rocking fun. The scene of Denise performing in a club also has spirit.
Unfortunately the finale doesn’t have any punch. The last shot comes from the refuse pile of conclusions. The audience en toto leaps to it feet at the school’s ultimate performance. It’s so tired it makes Kelsey seem alert.
Burnett’s script almost sinks “Fame,” but the voice of Naughton, the heart of Dutton and the energy of Tancharoen give it a pulse.
“Fame” is erratic, but it definitely has a beat.