With Naturi Naughton, Kay Panabaker, Kelsey Grammer. Directed by Kevin Tancharoen. Rated PG for thematic material including teen drinking, a sexual situation and language. 107 minutes.
The people who seem to have a problem with a new, updated version of “Fame” are the ones old enough to be familiar with the 1980 movie or the subsequent TV series. Both are available on DVD and are good as far as they go, but neither are such indelible classics that a remake borders on sacrilege. In a tip of the hat towards the original Debbie Allen, who played a teacher in the movie and the TV series, now plays the principal of New York’s Academy for the Performing Arts. Otherwise it’s the same story updated and toned down from the original R rating to PG here. Although it has a harder edge, this is “Fame” for the “High School Musical” crowd.
We follow a group of students from audition to graduation over their four years where they have to work hard at music, acting, singing or dancing, but also have to do regular schoolwork as well. The principal makes this point at orientation, but as we follow the different stories, that seems to be taking place off-camera. The teachers we meet (Kelsey Grammer, Bebe Neuwirth, Charles S. Dutton, Megan Mullaly – are all on the performing arts side.
While these veteran actors, best known for their TV work, each get their moments – including Mullaly belting out the Rodgers and Hart song “You Took Advantage Of Me” – it’s really the students whose stories matter. We follow several students, but there are four primary stories.
Jenny (Kay Panabaker) has a burning desire to be an actress but can’t let herself go in performance. She’s the shy, naïve character who will blossom, but not without a few problems along the way. Denise’s (Naturi Naughton) parents have planned out a career for her as a classical pianist but she finds herself drawn to pop and rap music at school.
The guys have their issues as well. Malik (Collins Pennie) comes from a troubled family, where he hasn’t told his mother he’s at the performing arts school because she wouldn’t approve. Being honest with others and himself will be his path. Meanwhile Kevin (Paul McGill) begins to wonder if he’s good enough to succeed as a dancer. No matter how hard he works at it isn’t good enough.
Of course, the kids also learn about dishonest producers and those who want to direct young talent to the casting couch rather than the spotlight, as well as the temptations of legitimate jobs which inevitably interfere with relationships and their education. This is all stuff that grown-ups will have seen before, while teen viewers may find this speaks directly to their own hopes and fears.
“Fame” is an engaging remake that doesn’t eclipse the original but neither does it turn it into a travesty. One additional note: fans of the title song will have to wait for the closing credits for an all-out rendition of it. If you like the film, you’ll find it was worth the wait.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.