Whether we were conscious of the shift or not, it wasn't until John Travolta discoed his way through the gritty Saturday Night Fever that we realized the distinct emergence of a sub-genre rooted in traditional musicals. However, instead of movies where characters used fantastical song and dance to proclaim their feelings, the new dance movies broke all former rules.
Whereas classic musicals like Singin' in the Rain were bright and upbeat, Hollywood's dance flicks thirty years later were naturalistic, darkly realistic and ensured that when it came to singing, the practice was either nonexistent or kept to a bare minimum. Moreover, dance itself was restrained in the new sub-genre you could also dub the postmodern musical.
In the '40s and '50s heyday of the genre, dance was traditionally used to convey the euphoria of being in the Big Apple in On the Town or falling in love with Audrey Hepburn's bookish beauty with the Funny Face.
However, in dance movies, movement could express any given emotion whether it was romantic love and friendship or downright anger and alienation in movies like Fever, Fame, Footloose, Dirty Dancing, A Chorus Line, Flashdance and even mainstream movies like The Breakfast Club which turned Shermer High School's library into an '80s version of a mosh pit.
And needless to say, because it's set over the course of the four years from audition to graduation and takes place at a real, prestigious New York High School for the Performing Arts, for the most part, Fame keeps musical outbursts in check by presenting the dark work as though it were a docudrama.
Filled with nervous laughter, pathos, and tears, the opening sequence is absolute slice-of-life perfection as we're introduced to the film's main characters while they struggle to read lines, deal with stage mothers, lug electronic equipment from their father's cab and then go from floor to floor, trying to ace their auditions in the areas of dance, music, and/or acting.
Admittedly, the 1980 film still looks like a 1980 film and unfortunately there's no getting around that fact. Yet Warner Brothers – releasing the film on behalf of MGM – has done a remarkable job of polishing the grain in the print so that the clarity is enhanced to a level six times sharper than DVD and light-years better than VHS or television, which is the way undoubtedly most viewers remember it.
Furthermore, despite the fact that the extras aren't overly compelling and you won't find anything new in store for those who've encountered it previously in the realm of special features, the improvement in picture and sound is more than worthwhile.
Given that the gritty nature is now more apparent in the plot-line than in the picture this time around, it's no wonder that while discussing the work online, I accidentally interchanged the director for another with the same initials by mixing up Fame's true director Alan Parker with All the President's Men director Alan J. Pakula, who no doubt would've applauded the other A.P.'s approach.
Not shying away from topics ranging from abortion to homosexuality to rape, the movie repeatedly proves it still deserves its "R" rating, making another distinction between the sub-genre and modern musicals in that Footloose, Flashdance and others aren't kid-friendly.
Still startling by today's standards and undoubtedly – although I haven't caught the remake yet to compare – harder hitting than most musicals or dance movies of the '80s due to the amount of territory covered, while it isn't an easy film to watch, Fame is still one that's ♪“gonna live forever”♪ along with the Oscar nominated title song performed by star Irene Cara.
In fact, one of its weaknesses is the way it attempts to incorporate homelessness, abuse, illiteracy, parental pressure etcetera in its crowded and already overly long and tonally challenged 133 minute running time.
Moving uneasily from true drama to a laughable sing and dance-along number “Hot Lunch” that pulls you right out of the movie to spectator rather than participant, Fame is much better off when it transfers the rules of dance movies and musicals into the action of a movie about students rather than wasting time with performance numbers that don't fit the film, including a Rocky Horror Picture Show live performance and an obligatory cheesy “final show.”
Likewise, the cast of budding stars are for the most part, quite promising, especially the film's main ensemble but there are more than a few times when you'll notice that again, just like seeing the kids at Rocky Horror some of the absolutely devastating speeches that occur outside the school sound a little too much like prepared scene works and monologues they presented in class.
Yet fortunately, this is a rare occurrence you only catch in a few obvious places such as in the scene when a young dancer explains why she can't possibly have a baby while at the abortion clinic in something akin to an after school special than a film script. Thus, luckily the flaws are outweighed by the fact that overall, Fame remains a solid, fascinating and far more substantive entry into the era's rush of offspring from the song and dance genre.
Presented in the same authentic vein as Fever, Footloose and other “dance movies,” on the surface Fame just seems like a postmodern musical or docudrama that happens to be about song and dance kids. However, watch it again today and the picture and sound alone will bring you right back to theatrical quality in HD twenty-five years later. Yet when you combine the Blu-ray with the content, we're assured that ♪baby, we'll remember its name♪ since Parker's original bar-setting movie will continue to fascinate audiences for years to come.
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