For some part, surprisingly, yes, it actually is. It's a shinier, dopier "Fame," reminiscent more of "Save the Last Dance" than Alan Parker's classic, but at least screenwriter Allison Burnett and director Kevin Tancharoen make a go at something a little deeper. Students still get disillusioned and not everyone makes it to a happy ending. The movie doesn't shy too far away from inner city grime.
Still, it's only grime light. The hardships aren't nearly as hard as they were back in the days of Coco's screen test or Hilary's abortion, and the ironies of the upbeat Irene Cara theme song seem lost on this oversimplified reboot. The filmmakers seem far more interested in distracting us with dance numbers than getting to the heart of the characters, who get by with middling "dad doesn't want me to be a hip-hop star" subplots.
This could be chalked up to Tancharoen's experience, or lack thereof. This is the director's feature debut, having previously helmed various dance-related reality shows and pop concerts. The musical interludes do have a crackle to them, a liveliness that helps dilute the problems of the show-offy diva vocals. (The old "Hot Lunch Jam" was a matter of everyone coming together to make great music; the remake's equivalent, "This Is My Life," is a matter of everyone in the cafeteria trying to one-up each other with rap lyrics and vocal acrobatics.) Tancharoen is smart with his camera and his editing, and these moments come off as crisp, exciting, fun.
But they're also too often out of place, especially as the film progresses. One number, which feels more like a Pussycat Dolls show than a high school revue, seems tacked in at random; another "big party" scene spends all its time on "Moulin Rouge!" visuals as the kids ham it up with impossibly perfect circus costumes. It's as if the movie keeps getting distracted from having to actually deal with the weak storylines.
The plot follows the same structure as the original: we follow four years (plus the audition season prior) in the lives of a handful of students and faculty at the fictional New York Academy of Performing Arts. This time, though, there seems to be barely any growth in the characters. Not only do they not age (forgivable enough, I suppose), but there's not much change to their stories - by graduation, they're just now resolving the conflicts and romances that popped up four years earlier.
Some of the conflicts are lifted straight out of the 1980 version, refiltered and reworked without adding much. The Lisa subplot from the original is grafted onto the character of Kevin (Paul McGill), who must deal with the straight-up, cold-hearted honesty of his dance teacher (Bebe Neuwirth). Coco's sleazy screen test is PG-ified into a guy making an unsuccessful pass at an aspiring young actress, which, let's face it, barely has the same kick.
The aspiring young actress is Jenny (Kay Panabaker), who strangely enters school too shy to want to perform, which begs the question: why a performing arts school, then? Ah, but the script never bothers with such details, as instead it hopes to create cheap conflict that'll make us smile once it's overcome. A similar question comes mid-movie, when a vocal teacher (Megan Mullally) invites her students out to karaoke, so they can discover how it feels to sing in front of strangers, and we wonder, hey, wouldn't a bunch of third-year choir kids from the city's top performing arts school have a little experience with public singing by now?
The other subplots are even weaker. Unwilling to explore the raw emotions and deep-rooted social problems connected with the R-rated original, the remake instead tosses us two - count 'em, two! - storylines where students have to hide their true ambitions from their disapproving parents. The main plot thread features piano student Denise (Naturi Naughton) reveals a big talent for singing pop music, and while she records a hit record for her friend, she wishes to remain anonymous. This plays out not like something worthy of the "Fame" label, but as a pseudo-remake of a made-for-cable musical, something like "American Mall" or "Camp Rock." (Even the finale attempts to top "I Sing the Body Electric" by giving us an over-the-top "High School Musical"-esque finale where everyone shines - although one wonders how the vocal students about losing the leading singing role in the graduation production to a piano student.)
So yeah, I suppose "Fame" '09 does miss the point. It might try to throw us off with the occasional aspiration-gone-wrong, but those moments of bleak reality are shoved aside to make room for the glitzy dance numbers, smiling faces, and pop soundtrack tunes. It's as if the franchise was remade not as a movie, but as a Pepsi commercial.
MGM/Fox has offered two versions of "Fame" onto one single-sided disc: the original theatrical cut and an extended edition, with some fifteen minutes added. Sadly, it's mostly dance footage that's been pasted into the movie, although I doubt I'd have been happier with seeing any of the storylines expanded.
Video & Audio
MGM/Fox provided us with a watermarked DVD-R screener copy for review, and not final shelf product. As such, we can't comment on video/audio quality until a retail version arrives. In the meantime, just know that the movie is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, with a Dolby 5.1 soundtrack. French and Spanish 5.1 dubs are included, as are English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
Fifteen deleted/extended scenes (18:12 total; 2.35:1 anamorphic) are mostly just minute-long snippets of extra character business, obviously trimmed for time.
A video for "Fame" (3:29; 1.33:1), performed by Naturi Naughton and Collins Pennie, showcases the modernized (read: overproduced) take on the classic song.
"Remember My Name" (17:14 total; 1.78:1 anamorphic) offers "talent profiles" for eleven of the movie's young stars. They're pretty much like the contestant profiles shown on programs like "American Idol," which means, lots of fluff in between talk about the actors' pasts.
"Fame National Talent Search Finalists" (6:49; 1.78:1 anamorphic) props a camera in a nightclub balcony to capture some sort of win-a-walk-on-role talent contest.
Former "So You Think You Can Dance" contestant (and current "Fame" co-star) Kherington Payne hosts "The Dances of Fame" (6:53; 1.33:1), a look at the choreography of the film. Perhaps tellingly, this is the most detailed portion of the extras section. (Who needs characters or acting skills when you have a room full of dancers?)
A batch of previews for other Fox/MGM titles rounds out the disc. A separate batch plays as the disc loads.
This new "Fame" wants to be the old "Fame," all grit and spunk and full of cold reality, but it's really just another teen flick with some grain on the film stock. Skip It, and hightail it straight to the original.