Fame (1980)

Dir. Alan Parker. Starring Barry Miller, Maureen Teefy, Gene Anthony Ray

A fun thought exercise for future car trips: what’s your trilogy of (insert city here) movies? For example, my Los Angeles trilogy features Sunset Boulevard, Blade Runner, and Pulp Fiction (with special apologies to Double Indemnity and Chinatown). I’ve given less thought to my New York City trilogy, but my first draft is Do the Right Thing, Once Upon a Time in America, and Fame. I’ve always had a soft spot for texts which recognize that New York is a place that many people can’t wait to leave; none of those movies make me (or anyone, I hope) want to move to New York, and that makes them important. The rest of the nation deserves a chance to tell the Big Apple to shove off every now and then.

Once upon a time, New York – especially the New York that characters like Ralph (Miller) and Leroy (Ray) inhabit – was a hole in the wall. Fame is at least as good as Dog Day Afternoon at evincing the ugliness of America’s most important metropolis. Think about the scene where Ralph, dancing over a landfill’s worth of trash, shouts that he’s made it into the High School of Performing Arts, or the scene where Leroy, who looks as homeless as the other three black men in the scene, gathered around a flaming trash can, tries to read a Maytag advertisement. There’s nothing glamorous about New York City in this movie, but there’s nothing performatively gritty about what Fame is up to, either. New York is simply where the kids live, and if Ralph lives in some run down apartment reliant on the money they get from rapidly changing tenants, Hilary (Antonia Franceschi) lives in a spacious penthouse straight from the latter half of a Fitzgerald short story. The school is worn down, with dark red bricks and plaster walls, falling apart, about as glitzy as the jobs waiting tables that most of the graduates will have while hoping for bit parts on soap operas and off-off Broadway productions. New York is faithfully depicted; even Times Square, where should-be couple Coco (Irene Cara) and Bruno (Lee Curreri) grab a hot dog, looks like knockoff Coney Island rather than the presumed center of the universe on December 31st.

The darkness of the film has very little to do with the characters themselves, even if we can’t help but like them. Ralph (nee “Raul Garcia”) is recognizable to anyone who’s taught high school, the talented kid who’s got bigger problems to deal with than his homework and who is a nightmare in class because of it. Out of all the students at PA, Ralph is the most immediately successful, nabbing gigs to do stand-up comedy; he also burns out most publicly, falling into the typical trap of drugs and alcohol not long after his kid sister has a damaging experience with a junkie hobo in his building. The movie plays it up too much for it to be especially effective, and that’s the issue that everyone but Doris (Teefy) faces. Montgomery (Paul McCrane with hair) is gay in the late ’70s, which is of course a serious issue. Coco, desperate to be a star, is conned by an “artiste” who’s only interested in filming her without her shirt on. Hilary gets pregnant and follows that up with an abortion, and Leroy, of course, reads at a second-grade level. Their drama is so obviously scripted, which puts it at odds with the remarkably honest setting that the film simply works with. The most sympathetic characters are the ones who don’t seem to be plucked from after-school specials. Doris Finsecker, a nice Jewish girl with a mother teleported from Philip Roth’s subconscious, is so normal that it kills her. And Bruno, who understands that the synthesizer is here to stay, has a four-year fight with his extremely traditional music teacher; he’s just too shy to do much with it, which makes his taxi driver father (Eddie Barth) crazy, since he can see his son’s talent.

Angelo Martelli is the reason for the best scene of the film. He’s outfitted his taxi with some speakers and has begun blasting some of his son’s work outside the school, inciting a riot of students to come out and begin dancing in the street, on top of taxis, etc. Irene Cara’s voice rings out from the taxi: “Fame! I’m gonna live forever!” It’s a lavish, disco-inspired beat that’s drawn the hordes of hormonal teenagers who are writhing to their cultish hymn, expressing the hope that each of them will someday be the prima ballerina with a major company, or the first violinist of a metropolitan symphony orchestra, or star on a successful TV show. It could not be plainer that the vast majority of them will fall through the cracks, leaving only a few who will make a real living from their chosen profession. But in that moment, they can all sense their impending stardom, and they rejoice in it, blissfully unaware of the realities of traffic patterns.

Fame is a musical, though it takes more cues from Nashville than it does from a Rodgers and Hammerstein joint. Its songs don’t express much in the way of plot development, although all of them have something to do with the characters. Most of the singing is left up to Cara, who is probably best known for “Flashdance…What a Feeling,” and for good reason. “Out Here on My Own,” a three minute love song par excellence, is staged entirely in a theater, with Bruno walking around the piano while Cara belts her heart out. (The version from the 2009 film, sung by Naturi Naughton, is done an octave up, is a fluttering travesty, and will not be spoken of again in these parts.) The song is much more personal than Bruno’s reticence or Montgomery’s homosexuality or even Doris’ (for an aspiring actress) crippling normality. Coco talks a big game through most of the film, down to her last solo scene where she’s debased by a pornographer; it’s only here that we get a sense of Coco outside of business hours, outside of her attempt to look professional. The students are not so hot at performing monologues – one of the running gags of the movie is just how bad some of the potential actors are at acting – but they are very good at expressing themselves musically. Glee would be proud. (Fame would not care, incidentally. Bless it.)

Similarly intimate is an extremely short song, written and performed by Paul McCrane, called “Is It Okay if I Call You Mine?” (The link is an album version; the movie version lasts about a minute and a half.) After having lost Doris, his best friend, to Ralph, his onetime bully turned friend, Montgomery finds himself alone in his apartment, abandoned by his famous mother and his best friends. Lit by the flashing neon sign of a hardware, Montgomery picks out a song which is even more about loneliness than “Out Here on My Own,” and although it could never have made it on the radio, it’s the kind of song that would have played perfectly on the B-side of a Simon and Garfunkel record. It’s the most touching moment that Montgomery has, one that humanizes his struggle far more than his monologues or his talks with Doris over half a sandwich or his embarrassing encounter with Ralph in a stage makeup session; it makes him a person.

Fame is not a classic; its skeleton is a retroactive period piece, like that video of a trolley in San Francisco from 1906. It hits almost all of its high points early on and then scuffles along through its characters’ senior year, trying to navigate a bunch of teenagers who think they’re grown-ups. The final scene does not try to focus on any of its stars too much; they are very much part of the ensemble of graduates. The students sing and perform an adaptation of Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric,” which is a sign of increasing maturity; it’s the academic version of “Fame,” according itself to rules of dance and orchestral music and vocal ensembles. In a movie where everyone is forced to remake themselves at least once, this final change is pitch-perfect.

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