Almost three decades since “Fame” — a legacy that included a TV series, a musical, even a reality show — the original template re-emerges, again focusing on fresh-faced yet hungry kids at New York’s High School for the Performing Arts. The real motivator here, though, is Disney’s “High School Musical” franchise (and perhaps a dollop of “American Idol”), resulting in a watered-down tone that causes the movie to drift dramatically between its musical and dance sequences. This PG-rated offering thus dances along a fine line — one that suggests a shelf-life well short of its “I wanna live forever” anthem.
Mostly, “Fame” tries to galvanize a new generation while offering a bland reboot of the recipe to anyone old enough to remember it.
Following only the broadest outline of Christopher Gore’s edgy original screenplay — which captured the passion within these kids, and how that can be exploited — first-time director Kevin Tancharoen and writer Allison Burnett hew closer to “after-school special” territory in the drama. Yes, there’s a ravenous hunger for success and the occasional disappointment, but the kids and their stories have been homogenized in such a way that nothing all that bad — or good, for that matter — really happens to any of them.
Opening with the auditions and then continuing, year by year, through the high school experience, the movie is almost inescapably episodic, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s only that the kids’ stories lack much bite, and their caring teachers — a virtual sitcom honor roll that includes Kelsey Grammer, Megan Mullally, Bebe Neuwirth and Charles S. Dutton (Debbie Allen provides the one link to the first movie) — don’t have enough screen time to make much of a difference. (The credits nevertheless have an egalitarian streak, listing both the older and younger contingents alphabetically.)
The sharp corners of issues such as ethnicity, class and sexuality have been rounded, leading to more mundane conflicts. Denise (Naturi Naughton, perhaps the one breakout player here) yearns to sing, but her parents insist she stick to classical piano. Jenny (Kay Panabaker) burns to bust out, creating tension with her more laid-back but vocally gifted boyfriend Marco (Asher Book). And Malik (Collins Pennie) struggles to channel anger and pain from a personal loss into his acting and rapping.
Alas, these pieces, however attractive, don’t add up to much dramatically. And even when they flirt with insights into the toil that goes into honing one’s craft and the distance between talent and stardom, they tend to pull up short — such as a promising but finally unrealized moment in which first Jenny, and then Marco, sings Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
A choreographer by training, Tancharoen fares better in bringing an exuberance to the performance sequences, but those frequent interludes — the best being Naughton belting out a song from the original, “Out Here on My Own” — don’t so much advance the story as provide a welcome respite from it.
For MGM — which could certainly use a hit on its thin release slate — all this has the feel of a missed opportunity. Yes, “Fame” was there in the library, but this revival manages to feel like a “me-too” response to all the singing and dancing, reality-based and otherwise, bursting out all over primetime, seeking to tap into the lucrative niche of teen and preteen girls.
The irony is that several of these talented young performers might very well wind up becoming famous. It just likely won’t be for this.