Hogwarts has nothing on New York’s High School Of Performing Arts. The idea of a school where hundreds of supremely talented, intense kids are packed together to pursue any and every artistic discipline, regardless of class, race, gender, beliefs or background, is practically magical. It’s a guaranteed breeding ground for vast personal drama, heavily imbued with the sense of boundless potential being recognized, then either rewarded or rejected. The setting proved so richly successful in Alan Parker’s 1980 movie musical Fame that it spawned a six-season spin-off TV series, a series of records and performance tours, a reality-TV competition, and a stage musical. It’s no wonder the idea is back, via a 2009 remake helmed by first-timer Kevin Tancharoen.
The big surprise is how much the remake respects the original. Like its predecessor, the 2009 Fame is a scattershot series of portraits with no clear protagonist. The film breaks up into five sections: first 10,000 teenagers audition to fill 200 slots at “P.A.,” as they call the school, and then the film checks in with them briefly over each of the four years ’til graduation. Their personal stories are naked clichés: pianist Naturi Naughton suffers under her father’s oppressive expectations, actor/rapper Collins Pennie represses his deepest emotions, dancer Paul McGill shares his peers’ desire but not their talent, and so on. Each plot plays out via, at most, a couple of scenes of setup and one of resolution. It’s like a full season of The Wire, edited down to a brisk season recap.
But by not wallowing in any of these stories, Tancharoen and screenwriter Allison Burnett focus on the vivid emotions rather than the trite details. That’s a bit of a cheat, but it works fine as a mere minor background to the joyous performances, from a wild interdisciplinary cafeteria jam inspired by the first Fame to a strikingly dramatic Bob Fosse-esque dance piece to Naughton’s heartbreaking cover of the first film’s Oscar-nominated hit “Out Here On My Own.” (The only other musical reprise from the 1980 movie is Naughton’s take on the title song.) The music leans more toward hip-hop and R&B than in the original, but there’s still room for a soupçon of everything in Tancharoen’s world, from ballet to tap to camcorder filmmaking to Chicago showtunes. The creators’ instincts only fail when they push too far in the direction of High School Musical, with one too many pretty Zac Efron types, and too much radio polish: When singer Asher Book, mic-and-music-free for his audition, opens his mouth and produces a processed-to-the-max, radio-ready ballad, the moment is disingenuous, artificial, and cloying. But there are few such wrong moves in a film that’s largely a raw, uplifting love letter to creativity in every possible form.