“Fuck it, if I can’t dance I’ll change to the drama department.” — Lisa (Laura Dean) in Fame (1980)
For nearly a week now, we’ve been taking a chronological look at some of the best and some of the worst films ever made about teenagers and high school. Yesterday, we finished off the 70s with Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. Today, we start the 80s by looking at yet another musical set in a high school. That musical is 1980’s Fame.
Taking place at the High School For Performing Arts in New York City, Fame follows a group of students from the beginning of their freshman year to graduation four years later. Among those students are Bruno (Lee Curreri), a musical prodigy, Coco (Irene Cara), who thinks that she’s the most talented student at the school, insecure Doris (Maureen Teefy), gay actor Montgomery (Paul McCrane), talented but functionally illiterate dancer Leroy (Gene Anthony Ray), and self-destructive comedian Ralph Garcia (Barry Miller, giving the best performance in the film). Over the course of four years, they fight, love, sing, and dance. They especially do a lot of dancing, which is basically the main reason why I enjoyed the film.
Fame is the perfect film to transition into the 80s with because, in many ways, it’s a perfect combination of the 70s and the 80s. In its use of ensemble and its emphasis on the gritty lives that the kids live outside of the school, the film is truly product of the 70s. However, whenever the film follows the students inside of the school, it becomes very much an 80s film, the type where the emphasis is on stylistically hyper editing and emotions are just as likely to be expressed through a musical montage as through dialogue. With its combination of the kids dreaming in the school and then facing the harsh realities outside, Fame feels like a collision of 70s pessimism and 80s optimism.
(Needless to say, pessimism usually makes for a more realistic film but optimism is a lot more fun to watch.)
Not surprisingly, for a film that made and released 34 years ago, a lot of Fame feels very dated. (What is surprising is that the 2009 remake feels even more dated.) It’s difficult not to cringe at the sight of all the leg warmers and big hair on display. The same can be said for the synthesizer-heavy soundtrack but, to be honest, I like 80s music. It may be cheesy but you can dance to it and really, what more can you ask from music? If nothing else, Fame serves as a valuable time capsule of the time that it was made and yes, I know that I’ve been saying that about a lot of movies lately but hey, it’s true! And I happen to love time capsules. So there.
And besides, dated as the film may be, Fame does get the big things right. It captures that feeling that we all had in high school, that feeling that you are destined for greater things and that, as long as you believe in yourself, good things will automatically happen to you. It captures the wonderful feeling of not only being creative and talented but also knowing that you are talented and creative..
The film is full of hints that the majority of the students at the high school will probably eventually be forced to give up on their dreams. A popular and handsome student is first seen graduating and full of confidence, just to pop up again an hour later, working as a waiter and looking desperate. Haughty Coco goes to an audition and ends up in tears after a sleazy producer tells her to undress. Ralph performs his stand-up comedy and, exhausted after going for days without sleep, ends up bombing. Leroy is offered a chance to dance professionally but first he has to try to talk his English teacher into giving him a passing grade while she mourns for her husband, who died just a few hours earlier. It’s actually a pretty dark movie but it’s hopeful too because, by the end of it, you realize that not all of the characters are going to make it but at least they’re going to have a chance to try.