First Time Watch: Fame (1980)

By Christian DiMartino

Alan Parker’s Fame was nominated for six Academy Awards and won two, for Best Original Song and Best Score. Yet it sits at a 6.6 on IMDb, which isn’t a bad rating, necessarily, but it seems kind of mixed considering the aforementioned six Oscar nominations. Perhaps the film was well received at the time, and then over time people turned their backs on it. Fame is flawed and a little uneven, but I liked it, and when I liked it, I really liked it.

The film wasn’t Parker’s first dive into movie musicals, and it wasn’t his last. His first feature, the children’s gangster comedy musical Bugsy Malone, was a bizarre experiment that I liked more than Parker did. This would be his second; he also made a film about musicians called The Commitments, and lastly, to a somewhat unsuccessful degree, he made Evita, a great-looking but exhausting film. I liked Fame the most out of these, because when this film cooks, it really sizzles. Parker, who died last year, was a great filmmaker who was capable of telling an interesting array of different stories. His two best films, Midnight Express and Mississippi Burning, were hard-hitting dramas that hit their mark beautifully.

With Fame, he does a few different things. He made a look at aspiring, ambitious youth, in the form of a movie musical. Yet, what surprised me about Fame was that whenever it stopped being a musical and it centered on the characters at hand… I found myself oddly invested in them, maybe because the performances are shockingly good. I barely recognized a face in Fame, but there is some really strong acting here. Where Fame missteps though is that the film needed a little more structure and focus. Narratively, it does feel a bit all over the place at times and I wish Parker had wrapped a bit neater of a bow on it. Again though, what works, works.

The film follows a group of aspiring dancers who attend a dance academy in New York City. The film centers on a select few of them as they aspire to reach their dreams, but it also focuses on their own personal growth and the relationships that form, along with the struggles they must face along the way, over the course of four years. Among the cast of characters is Doris (Maureen Teefy), who has an overbearing mother; Montgomery (Paul McCrane), Doris’ friend who struggles with his sexuality; Coco (Irene Cara) who is working with an up-and-comer; Leroy (Gene Anthony Ray) who struggles with reading; and Ralph (Barry Miller), an aspiring comedian with domestic drama.

The dancing and choreography in the early sequences of Fame are almost as electric as the stuff Bob Fosse pulled off in All That Jazz. I’m not THAT into singing and dancing and fah-lah-lah, and yet sequences like the ones in both All That Jazz and Fame pull me into their orbit. The songs that go along with them are also pretty solid. I also think the screenplay has a good amount of one-liners that really have a zing to them; it doesn’t surprise me that the film was nominated for its screenplay, simply for that reason.

As for the characters, I’m sure that many probably found the melodrama… well, melodramatic. I went for it, for the most part. Some of these stories could’ve used a touch more in terms of development, but the whole film entertained me. Again, it’s perhaps because the actors sell it beautifully, which I really think they do. Miller, in particular, steals the show. I mentioned him last for a reason: he’s the best. Miller gets a number of chances to shine here, and I’ll be damned if the guy doesn’t nail all of them.

Alas though, Fame isn’t quite a slam dunk. It is at times, but it isn’t the whole shebang. By the time I reached the end of it, I kind of wanted more. All of these storylines are established, and by the end, some don’t quite get enough screen time, while others get a good amount of screen time, and yet none of the arcs reach a conclusion that’s particularly satisfying. There isn’t closure. Which, I suppose, could be the point. Perhaps Parker doesn’t give us an epilogue of any kind because sometimes this IS how stars are made; some rise, some fall, some stumble, but yet maybe these characters have to experience these things in order to find their way to the top- to learn from their errors. Normally, I’m okay with ambiguity, but I didn’t feel it was needed here. The film ends on a note that, again, feels uneven. But what I liked in Fame, I liked quite a bit.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s