By Chaz Lipp
Originally published as Blu-ray Review: Fame (2009) on Blogcritics.
I’m going to come right out and say it: the 2009 remake of Fame is a far more entertaining movie than the 1980 original. While the new version did not receive any Oscar nominations (the original received six and won two), the energy level is far higher – especially in the film’s spunky first half. The recently released Blu-ray edition boasts an extended cut that is 15 minutes longer than the theatrical version. Having seen both, I can confidently say that the extended version is superior as it fleshes out characters that once received short shrift.
The lengthy opening features a group of young hopefuls auditioning for a chance to attend New York’s High School for the Performing Arts. This includes drama, music, and dancing. These early scenes buzz along at a brisk pace. We meet the primary students who will be focused on throughout the story. Some are cocksure and think they’re ready to take on the world. Others are more reserved and unsure about their level of talent. These kids have to learn to balance their desire for fame and fortune with the discipline required to truly master their craft. Unfortunately, the various subplots are a little predictable and things end up getting fairly soapy.
The young cast mostly tackles their roles with real verve. Naturi Naughton emerges as the true star. She plays Denise, a gifted concert pianist who really wants to be an R&B singer. Her overbearing father wants none of that, insisting she concentrate fully on classical music. But it turns out she has a powerhouse voice and pursues singing with another student, Malik. Played convincingly by Collins Pennie, Malik is an actor with a talent for rapping. He and Denise put a music group together and covertly work on an extracurricular show.
Another standout is season four So You Think You Can Dance finalist Kherington Payne, making her debut as an actress. Exuding pure sex appeal and unflappable confidence, Payne plays contemporary dancer Alice with star-making energy. Alice is significantly shortchanged by the script, but Payne manages to work wonders with the underwritten role. She is given a rather half-baked romance with a music student named Victor (Walter Perez) and some vague suggestions of emotional problems. But it’s during her dancing scenes where she commands the screen and leaves a lasting impression.
Kay Panabaker portrays a shy singer and actress, Jenny, who is taken advantage of by an older Performing Arts grad who acts in a soap opera. Luckily she has Marco to help guide her past some of her naivety. Marco is a much more confident singer, and somewhat of a show-off, who takes a liking to Jenny. This relationship is one of the weaker points of the film, not aided by the performance of Asher Book as Marco. Book isn’t nearly the vocalist he needs to be to pull off the character. In one incongruous scene, Marco is called upon by a teacher to sing “Someone To Watch Over Me” after Jenny supposedly butchers it. The problem is, Panabaker delivers a touchingly timid rendition of the timeless standard while Book sounds like a boy band reject.
If it all sounds a little disorganized, that’s because it is. This slice of life crams four years of high school into two hours. Perhaps a tighter focus would’ve worked better. Some of the characters don’t deserve all the screen time they consume. Neil is a wannabe filmmaker who slipped into Performing Arts, which doesn’t even have a film program, by claiming a desire to better understand actors. Neil is sort of a comic relief character as played by Paul Iacono. Much of his storyline was left on the cutting room floor (at least judging by the deleted scenes included on the disc) but the movie would’ve benefited from even less of him.
Some of the best scenes feature the more seasoned cast members. Charles S. Dutton, Kelsey Grammer, and especially Megan Mullally all turn in sturdy supporting work. The teachers are each seen attempting to instill the true meaning of the art they help their students create. Mullally, as vocal teacher Ms. Rowan, delivers a pitch perfect monologue to a group of her students after performing for them at a karaoke bar. Her reflections on her past – how she went from a Broadway hopeful to a high school teacher – ring true in contrast to the far more frequent shallow moments that dominate the film.
The 1080p high definition transfer presented on this Blu-ray is generally very strong. The overall look of Fame is basically drab, with a very muted color palette. As a result, the darker hues don’t immediately grab the viewer the way they might with a more colorful film. The film takes place in an urban environment and much of the cinematography is intentionally grainy. This is well represented in the HD transfer, with a sharp picture throughout. Skin tones are realistic and the black levels suitably even.
The audio is presented in a 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack. The frequent music-based performance scenes sound very good. Strong and distinct bass lines and percussion rumble from the speakers. The audio is never distorted, always clear as a bell. The mix has a tendency to bury dialogue at times, which is a relatively minor annoyance rather than a serious problem. There is a lot of music throughout the film and many scenes involving large crowds. At times I felt like I was missing a line or two here and there because of all the sonic activity. The rear channels are used frequently to bolster the effect of being among the live audience during performance scenes. It all makes for a solid audio experience.
A generous 18 minutes of deleted scenes are included with the special features. That’s on top of the extra 15 minutes already re-edited into the extended version of the movie. The deleted scenes continue to emphasize the unwieldy sprawl of the film. The footage centers largely around the character Neil, as I mentioned before, as he attempts to produce an independent film while attending Performing Arts. Unfortunately there isn’t much additional footage of Kherington Payne’s Alice, who remains a bit of an enigma. Payne does, however, turn up as the host of a featurette called “The Dances of Fame.” As the title suggests, the focus here is on the film’s dancers. “Remember My Name” consists of brief character profiles, more of a promotional piece than anything in-depth.
The 2009 version of Fame is a mess in many ways. The storytelling is all over the place, with too many side characters who don’t seem integral. But in terms of entertainment value, it easily trumps the boring, dated, dreary 1980 original. Buoyed by a spirited young cast and anchored by a trio of seasoned veterans, Fame is eminently watchable.