Contemporary issues blend with classic themes

The electrifying spectacle of Coco, Leroy and the rest of the “Fame” gang dancing on top of a New York City taxi cab circa 1980 may indeed “live forever” in our memories, but the 2009 incarnation, in theaters Sept. 25, is no cookie-cutter remake. In fact, with the exception of the setting — New York’s High School of Performing Arts; two original songs (the title track and the piano ballad “Out Here on My Own”); and the presence of Debbie Allen, who’s been promoted to principal — the film has been completely reinvented.

Some may cry sacrilege: No “Hot Lunch Jam”? No “I Sing the Body Electric”?! That’s right, say director Kevin Tancharoen and Lakeshore senior VP Brian McNelis, who oversaw the film’s music (Lakeshore released the soundtrack today). Not that they didn’t consider every option, but certain elements just didn’t hold up.

“It was really hard getting back to ‘macaroni and baloney, gimme hot lunch,'” says McNelis about the famous cafeteria jam scene. “Thirty years ago, that probably was leading edge. That wasn’t going to work for us.”

In today’s version, the kids in the lunchroom pull samplers and laptops out of their backpacks and stage a rap-off. But overall, the film is still closer to the gritty original than to something like “High School Musical.” For first-time feature director Tancharoen, who counts Bob Fosse among his heroes, authenticity was key. “I didn’t want to have cartoon characters and I didn’t want to set them in a candy-colored world,” he says. “You should see the sweat on the mirrors. You should see the paint chipping on the walls.”

He also had to stay true to his time, and that meant updating the storylines. “I don’t believe I could have told the story about Leroy, a poor black kid who can’t read,” he explains. “If you go to a performing arts school, that story doesn’t exist anymore, thank God!”

One crucial element was carried over from the original, and that’s the pairing of unknown talents with A-list music writers and producers. “You can’t make a movie about teenagers who want to be famous and cast superstars,” Tancharoen asserts. “With a movie like this, why not make stars?”

Naturi Naughton, who played Li’l Kim in the Biggie Smalls biopic “Notorious,” has been touted by many as a performer whose moment has arrived. “How she’s not signed to a major label blows my mind,” exclaims McNelis. “If you put her in front of a microphone and nothing else, you get religion.”

Fittingly, Naughton as classical pianist-turned-pop singer Denise performs the iconic title song. Taking his role as reinventor very seriously, the tune’s producer Raney Shockne kept the same melody but contemporized it with a heavier beat and a rap section in one version that Damian Elliot produced. “Obviously, that song is embedded in American culture,” says Shockne. “I didn’t want to ostracize anybody with that track.”

James Poyser, whose R&B pedigree includes working with Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill and Al Green, was brought in to write two new songs, “Get on the Floor” and “Can’t Hide From Love,” for Naughton and rapper Collins Pennie (Malik); hitmakers the Matrix produced the ballad “Try,” sung by Asher Book (Marco). “I think Asher is amazing,” says Matrix member Lauren Christy. “He’s probably gonna be a big heartthrob.”

The Matrix also produced the graduation number “Hold Your Dream,” the replacement for the original gospel-tinged finale “I Sing the Body Electric,” fusing orchestral music, African tribal drums, gospel and pop.

“The bar was set really high by the original filmmakers,” acknowledges McNelis, “and I was really blessed to have the people at the Matrix help us match that.”

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