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Image: "Fame"
MGM  /  MGM
Naturi Naughton belts out "Out Here On My Own" "American Idol" style in the new "Fame," with none of Irene Cara's jaded cynicism about the sentimental song she's singing.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/24/2009 2:08:14 PM ET 2009-09-24T18:08:14
COMMENTARY

You got big dreams? You want fame? Well, sorry, you’re probably not going to get it.

But if you want to know what the “Fame” remake did to the gritty 1980 musical drama about a bunch of kids at New York’s High School for The Performing Arts, here’s where to find out.

Warning: Spoilers lie ahead. If you can’t stand to know anything about a film before you see it, stop reading now.

1. Alan Parker vs. The Guy Who directed “Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for The Next Doll”: Parker, who helmed the original, is the director of films like “Midnight Express,” “Bugsy Malone,” “Angel Heart” and “The Commitments,” and is known for his moody visual compositions. The man in charge this time, Kevin Tancharoen, knows what dancers do but keeps the movie as bright and scrubbed as a recent Disney Channel TV movie about some kids in an all-singing, all-dancing high school.

2. Debbie Allen: In the first film her name was Lydia and her role was small. She played one of the dance instructors and got nowhere near the camera time of English teacher Anne Meara (who was given an emotional hospital breakdown moment). The TV show, on which Lydia was given a last name, “Grant,” changed all that and now her “…well fame costs” bit opens the remake. (It was not, however, part of the original dialogue in the 1980 version.) Here she plays the principal but her name is different. Did she change it? Did Lydia die in a freak ballet accident and her twin sister come along to run the school in her honor? We’ll never know.

3. Race, religion and sex: In 1980, after a decade of feminism, the blooming of racial pride and the gay liberation movement, the original movie was full of kids waving their various identity flags (and smoking weed). In this post-caring remake, no one frets about being Jewish or black or gay. All differences are melted down into one unifying characteristic: a refusal to believe in anything less than the guarantee of all fame dreams coming true. And another thing: Those raunchier 1980 kids had some faces with character and no access to personal stylists. Crooked teeth, frizzy hair. You just can’t get that sort thing outside of “Napoleon Dynamite” anymore.

4. Leg warmers: In the first movie, you can’t swing an original cast album of “A Chorus Line” without hitting a kid in leg warmers. Danskin may have been one of the first overt product placements in contemporary cinema. Boys, girls, everyone: leg warmers (and one pair of rainbow suspenders). Now, not so much. Lots of yoga pants, though.

5. Hot lunch jams and kids dancing on the hoods of cars: The new one provides the faithful with a bouncing update of the cafeteria production number, but Irene Cara’s scratchy-soul-throated shout out to “yellow Jello” and “blue stew, ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh” is nowhere to be found. And nobody gets to dance on a car to the theme song. You get tazed for that sort of thing now.

6. F-words: R-rated 1980 version = 39, PG-rated 2009 remake = 0. Whether you think that’s an improvement or not depends on your need to hear the way teenagers actually speak vs. your desires for an illusory “We’re All In This Together” cuddle-fest.

7. Bare-breasted humiliations and sexual brazenness: None. It starts when you learn that nobody in this new film has a name half as interesting as “Coco.” And unlike the 1980 version, steeped in “Let’s Get It On” culture of the sexually permissive 1970s, none of the new girls walk around saying salacious things like, “I dig his black ass.” And by the time the analogous casting couch/bad-guy-with-a-camera scene arrives, the girl in question escapes with all her clothes on. No tears, no slimy, badly pronounced faux-French patter like, “Tres jolie, Coco.” Kinder, gentler, faker.

8. Big finishes: The new one is bigger and bolder and louder and, unlike 1980’s “I Sing The Body Electric,” which at least had a literary antecedent in Walt Whitman, is mostly full of lyrics like “Don’t be afraid to SUCCEEEEEED!” Less poetic, of course, but you can’t fault it for that. These are more cynical times. And after all, “Body Electric” did have everyone convinced that they’d “burn with the fire of 10 million stars.” Actors never change. It really is all about them. In the original, when Anne Meara screams at Leroy about being self-centered, it felt like a stab. Here it’s just a given.

9. There was a time before “American Idol”: Nothing against big-voiced Naturi Naughton, who plays an approximate version of Irene Cara’s “Coco,” but her version of “Out Here On My Own” is gigantic and booming, an “I Will Always Love You” anthem for careerist kids determined to bulldoze their way into a multi-platform revenue stream deal with ICM. In the 1980 version, Cara sings the song, gets told how good she is, then dismisses the entire thing by calling it “sentimental s---.”

10. Time warps: The original film features a turning point liberation moment for its mousiest character when she goes to a midnight screening of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” gets high, takes off her top, and dances in front of the screen to “Time Warp.” But the only transvestite mad scientists in the remake are the ones you imagine got shot and edited out, because while there’s a clip credit for “Rocky Horror” in the closing credit roll, no such scene exists in the movie. Dammit, Janet!

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