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MOVIE REVIEW

'Fame'

The heart and soul that made the 1980 original so compelling has been shredded in this version.

September 25, 2009|BETSY SHARKEY | FILM CRITIC

"Fame," it turns out, is not going to live forever. It's officially DOA.

Call the coroner. Then call in the top teams from "CSI," and that sexy pair from "Bones" while you're at it, because if ever there was a crime scene that should be yellow-taped and relentlessly investigated this is it.

Someone has driven a stake through the heart and ripped out the soul of the 1980 original. The responsible parties, make that irresponsible parties, should be found, thrown in movie jail and not allowed within 50 feet of a set again. Ever.

Gone is almost every shred of the gutsy, gritty script that Christopher Gore wrote. It would earn him an Oscar nomination, one of six that "Fame" would get, which should have been a clue to the team on the remake that maybe, just maybe, he had something there. (The film would go on to win two for song and score and launch the career of singer-songwriter Irene Cara.)

Gore's script distinguished itself with angst-filled back stories of the kids who made it into the highly competitive New York City High School of Performing Arts, stories that would, sadly enough, still have been relevant today: the brilliant dancer who can't read; the gay actor's painful coming out; the domineering stage mother; the interracial romance; the ballerina's unwanted pregnancy; the dignity stripped, literally and figuratively, from a young hopeful in a dirty hotel room in front of a camera; the stand-up wannabe seduced by fame, betrayed by drugs.

Though the remake uses the same blueprint -- starting with the auditions and then chaptering the story from freshman year through graduation -- the sense of change and evolution that should come with those years has gone missing here.

Whether it was the PC police working to ensure that PG rating or too many notes from the suits who couldn't distinguish between the baby and the bathwater, Allison Burnett's watered-down screenplay offers up a vacuous teenage wasteland rather than a rich coming-of-age story.

Instead, the performing arts school whose seething talent spilled out of the classrooms and onto the streets with such force in director Alan Parker's hands is left gasping for breath. The friendships, the friction, all the painful figuring out who you are of high school has apparently been stuffed into a third-floor locker and forgotten. The lesson here? Performance is not enough, we have to care about the characters, something even the countless spawn of "Fame" -- including "American Idol" and "Project Runway" -- learned early on.

Sadder still, first-time director Kevin Tancharoen, 25, and director of photography Scott Kevan have given us a great-looking film, albeit a Rudy Giuliani vision of New York City. Everything is pristine, from the kids to the classrooms to the subways. Even the streets have been emptied. Though the grime, the taxis and the crowds are gone, it is a spare beauty that the filmmaker uses well.

Tancharoen has a real feel for the performance pieces too, and it is in the dance scenes that the film ignites. Modern dancer Kherington Payne is even more mesmerizing on the big screen than she was last year in "So You Think You Can Dance." The director makes the most of that extraordinary body in motion with a stripped-down staging.

But it is Naturi Naughton as Denise, a classical pianist turned rocker over the protests of her father, who is the showstopper. Put a piano in front of her or a microphone in her hand and you believe that a star is being born right in front of you, which is exactly the emotional note the film is supposed to play from start to finish. If you happened to catch Naughton earlier this year as Lil' Kim in the biopic "Notorious," an under-the-radar film that traced the short life and violent death of rapper Biggie Smalls, her turn in "Fame" will serve only as confirmation of a talent who will hopefully be around for a very long time. For everyone else, she is "Fame's" brightest star.

There are other kids who emerge out of the ether -- Collins Pennie as actor-rapper Malik brings a kind of dramatic resonance to the role that leaves you feeling the film just scratched the surface of his potential. And Asher Book, not one of the five featured actors, may well turn out to be the sleeper surprise of the bunch with an appealing, low-key Zac Efron vibe about him.

Unfortunately, the other central characters prove to be forgettable, with performances that would have gotten them kicked out of the real NYC school. As for the faculty, with the exception of drama teacher Charles Dutton and one song by Megan Mullally, which is a lot of fun but makes absolutely no sense at all as part of the story, the teachers, especially Kelsey Grammer and Bebe Neuwirth, feel like day players -- such a waste.

So unless you are one of those types who always slows down at accident scenes, consider leaving it to the detectives to solve the sad case of "Fame." If there's a trial, we'll let you know.

--

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

--'Fame'

MPAA rating: PG for thematic material, including teen drinking, a sexual situation and language

Running time: 1 hour,

47 minutes

Playing: In selected theaters

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