There’s this terrific new movie all about energetic young people and their drive to perform and the complexities of their teenage lives and their ability to get on stage and ultimately wow an audience against all odds.
It’s called “Bandslam,” and based on its quick death at the box office, odds are you didn’t see it.
And as if to punish audiences for neglecting that terrific little comedy-with-music, along comes a tedious remake of “Fame” which, like Times Square, is rather scrubbed-up and lacking in character in comparison with its 1980 counterpart. We follow one bright-eyed class over four years at the New York City High School of Performing Arts, from auditions to graduation, but thanks to the blitheringly awful script — credited screenwriter Allison Burnett disavows it, and he willingly put his name on “Feast of Love” and “Untraceable” — we barely get to know any of the young lead characters.
There’s tightly-wound actress Jenny (Kay Panabaker), nice-guy Marco (Asher Book), angry young man Malik (Collins Pennie), good-girl classical pianist Denise (Naturi Naughton, “Notorious”), nerdy filmmaker Neil (Paul Iacono) and underwhelming dancer Kevin (Paul McGill) — and those capsule descriptions are about as much depth as we ever get. (The last kid, incidentally, is the movie’s only vaguely gay character; both versions of “Fame” apparently take place in a parallel universe where a performing-arts high school has only one gay boy on the whole campus.)
“Fame” bounces back and forth between these kids with such ADD-affected editing that we get only the shallowest of insight into any of them. (Sample scene — Angry Mom: “Who told you, you were so damn special?” Son Who Wants to Be an Actor: “You did!”) We get two rich-girl/poor-boy romantic couplings, as well as the cutesy chaste romance between the dentally endowed Jenny and Marco, but they seem completely arbitrary; never do we get much sense of what any of the boys see in any of the girls, or vice versa.
The plot hits one familiar bump after another, and always in the dopiest way possible: Jenny almost gets suckered into a casting-couch situation by an unscrupulous alum — the film’s “Très jolie, Coco” moment — but even though she escapes with virtue intact (this is a PG movie, after all), “Fame” punishes her for it, despite that fact that she’s not guilty of anything worse than misguided networking. And when Denise finally breaks out as a hip-hop singer in front of her wealthy parents who would prefer she play Bach on the piano, it’s a pale imitation of the “Here’s Where I Stand” number in “Camp.” (That’s another movie from “Bandslam” director Todd Graff, who in a just world would have been at the helm of “Fame.”)
The casting department shrewdly threw in some familiar TV folks who’ve earned their Broadway bones — Charles S. Dutton, Kelsey Grammer, Megan Mullally, Bebe Neuwirth and the returning Debbie Allen — to bolster the ensemble, but they’re given far too little to do here.
As for the musical moments, the audition sequence is skillfully edited, and the new spin on the original’s cafeteria number stands out, as does Naughton tearing up “Out Here on My Own.” But first-time director Kevin Tancharoen goes for long stretches without any singing or dancing, leaving us to scene after deadly scene featuring the movie’s barely-sketched-in characters.
People will see this new “Fame” and cry, all right, but not in the way its makers intended.
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