More of a guilty pleasure than a legitimate melodrama, this spirited story about life at a performing-arts school in New York City was one of several 1980 films (others include American Gigolo) that presaged the emergence of the MTV aesthetic. Powered by frenetic editing, glossy cinematography, and a loud soundtrack, Fame is frequently intoxicating, even though it’s a superficial experience filled with convenient plot twists, crowd-pleasing production numbers, and shallow characterizations. Compared to such subsequent music-driven dramas as Flashdance (1983) and Footloose (1984), however, Fame is downright soulful. Written by musical-theater professional Christopher Gore, who earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay (an impressive accomplishment considering this was his first and only movie script), the picture takes place at the High School of the Performing Arts, and the storyline examines the heartaches and triumphs of young people struggling to become actors, composers, dancers, and singers. (Although the filmmakers used the name of a real-life school, none of the scenes were shot inside the actual institution.) Also woven into the narrative are the experiences of several instructors, who react to their ambitious students with a mixture of cynicism, hope, and wistfulness.
The primary student characters are Bruno (Lee Curreri), a would-be composer who clashes with instructors and feels embarrassed by his overly supportive cab-driver father; Coco (Irene Cara), a talented actress/singer who hides insecurities behind a mask of obnoxious bravado; Doris (Maureen Teefy), a burgeoning thespian whose exposure to other nascent artists draws her out of her repressed-upbringing shell; Hilary (Antonia Franceschi), a wannabe actress whose wealthy background sets her apart from her peers; Leroy (Gene Anthony Ray), a street-trained dancer who feels ashamed about his impoverished private life; Montgomery (Paul McCrane), a sensitive actor struggling with his sexuality, and Ralph (Barry Miller), an actor/comedian who feels ambivalent about his Latino heritage.
The effective but schematic script gives equal focus to performances and private moments. One iconic sequence involves the students erupting into a schoolwide jam session; the energy is potent and the music is propulsive, but it’s distracting to hear a fully mixed music recording accompanying a supposedly spontaneous event. Similarly, the sequence built around the title song (an Oscar winner performed by Cara) is fun but silly—Bruno’s dad plays a recording that Bruno made with Coco from a loudspeaker wired into a taxicab, drawing the entire student body into an impromptu outdoor dance party. Some scenes are more realistic, such as Coco’s degrading audition and Montgomery’s touching soliloquy. At its best, Fame captures the joy of creation—for instance, Coco singing the lovely ballad “Out Here on My Own” while Bruno accompanies her on piano. The acting is generally solid, with Cara, McCrane, and Ray making strong impressions among the young performers. (Choreographer-turned-actress Debbie Allen, playing a dance instructor, gets the movie’s best line.) Behind the camera, director Alan Parker (Midnight Express) ensures that glimmers of humanity peek through the film’s shiny veneer. Fame didn’t spawn any sequels, but it did inspire a 1982-1987 TV series featuring many of the same actors, including Allen, Curreri, and Ray. In 2009, the original movie was remade, but the new version failed to generate much excitement.