Fame

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Fame

In spite of a success rate that's roughly one M*A*S*H for every hundred Harry And The Hendersons, the temptation to squeeze the big screen onto the little tube continues to be irresistible. But the chemistry rarely translates, even on a surefire sitcom like the recent flop My Big Fat Greek Life. The exceptions usually involve one format betraying the other: TV's M*A*S*H defanged Robert Altman's irreverent classic with sitcom-friendly banter and sentimentality; alternately, Joss Whedon reclaimed his botched screenplay for 1992's silly Buffy The Vampire Slayer and developed an improbably fertile TV universe around it. An anomaly among anomalies, Fame seems to have been conceived as a TV show first and a movie second, which explains its unusually smooth transition from one format to the next, though not how writer and creator Christopher Gore picked up a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination in the process. Littered with salty language and locker-room cheesecake, Alan Parker's 1980 film takes the form of a hip, urban musical along the lines of Saturday Night Fever, but it's only a censor's pen away from an overproduced TV pilot. Following eight major characters over four years at New York City's High School For The Performing Arts, Gore's script reads like an outline for the entire series, a 133-minute pitch with full choreography and several cast members who would return for the show. Without the comfortable sprawl of a 22-episode season, relationships change drastically from one cut to the next, weeks' worth of subplots are left clipped and unresolved, and the musty stereotypes have no time to wriggle into real people. Not that Gore and company accomplished much more over six years on network and syndicated television, but at least the show had more room for its banalities to stretch out a bit. Over the mad rush from freshman auditions to a senior graduation recital, the characters pair off neatly into romantic opposites: a wallflower (Maureen Teefy) and a gregarious troublemaker (Barry Miller), a streetwise black dancer with raw talent (Gene Anthony Ray) and an upper-class ballet snob (Antonia Franceschi), an extroverted singer-dancer with an enterprising mind (Irene Cara) and a retiring genius (Lee Curreri) who would rather make music from his basement. That leaves a couple of third wheels, including a gay loner (Paul McCrane) who comes out in a soppy monologue ("Gay used to be a happy word") and an ugly duckling (Laura Dean) who can't keep step with the class. In his notably lifeless commentary track, Parker talks about Fame as adding to MGM's great tradition of musicals, but notes that his impromptu numbers arise naturally from a situation, rather than following the Old Hollywood style of sudden bursts of song. Far from refreshingly modern, the musical sequences in Fame either jam a chaotic mass of flailing bodies into a small space or combine everyone's talents into a conceptual slosh, as in the dreadful synth-rock-orchestra finale of "I Sing The Body Electric." The new DVD version slaps on a few haphazard features, including a promo for the real NYC performing-arts school, but it's mainly worth treasuring as a time capsule filled with amusingly dated trends in fashion and pop. After all the ballyhoo about Curreri's cutting-edge brilliance, the "future of music" manifests in the title track, as generic keyboard cheese that wouldn't last through the decade. And how far has masculinity evolved since Ray, the standard for brute heterosexuality, prowled the halls in roller skates, legwarmers, and a baby-blue tank-top with his first name on the front? What will the Fames of today look like tomorrow?