The musical does something that other genres cannot do: it marries music with human drama – and together, song and score can conceal truth or expose it. It can give voice to a character’s concerns or lie for them. This kind of psychodrama was brought to the fore in Michael Bennett’s landmark A Chorus Line. Some years after that Pulitzer Prize Winner took audiences by storm, director Alan Parker (who did wonders with the surprisingly dark child-centric Depression-era musical Bugsy Malone) reimagined Bennett’s gypsy group therapy session, and the results were astonishing. That film was Fame. Opening with Montgomery (Paul McCrane) reciting a monologue from the play The Dark At The Top of the Stairs, Fame is instantly engaging, alluring and all too real. Sensitive, tortured gay student Montgomery presents this monologue with brutal truth, and is shattered when he fumbles his lines. From his break in concentration, Parker’s masterful editor Gerry Hambling cuts to the drama teacher watching him audition – the illusion of reciting memory is exposed as fragile performance. Fame is about truth: the self-made and self-constructed, and the frailty of honesty and the unashamed. The magic in Alan Parker’s film lies within its grim realism and the gritty menace that permeates its situations, and its loneliness, isolation, desperation and quiet hope.
The opening sequence for Fame (a film broken up into various time frames of school procession) is an excursion into the confusion, determination and crazed auditioning process for a public school dedicated to the arts and a frenzied tribute to these youngsters, desperate to find a place feel familiar. Some are talented, some aren’t. Some have parents who push them; some are out there on their own. The grittiness of the film which Parker captures so well is forever palpable – you can taste the dusty mess halls, feel the blood and sweat stains on the dance boards, and when you’re outside of the High School of Performing Arts, the danger of the subway and Times Square is a harsh reality. Playing off this is the essence of what makes an artist (or someone posing as an artist) tick. Fame also reveals – and revels in – the insecurities and weaknesses of its youth. For example, the two music teachers understand that a young Chinese student can play the violin very well, but when they get him to sing, he can’t. Dance students toss their limber, thin bodies around trying to impress the stoic and discipline-obsessed teachers, but they soon learn that they must also know how to act and play a musical instrument.
The eight central teens are Lisa (Laura Dean), Coco (Irene Cara), Hilary (Antonia), Doris (Maureen Teefy), Ralph (Barry Miller), Bruno (Lee ), Leroy (Gene Anthony Ray) and the aforementioned Montgomery. They all come to represent different facets of the human condition, just like the Muppets in The Muppet Movie from a year earlier (a very different musical). Lisa is a dancer who isn’t very good, but doesn’t want to hear the ugly truth. Coco is a triple threat and dedicated to her talent but ultimately a slave to opportunity. Like Coco, Hilary is also exceptionally gifted but haunted by a detachment from her family and uses sexuality to connect with others. Doris is a painfully shy drama student who blossoms into a seemingly well-adjusted young lady, but is oppressed by a domineering mother and her Jewish culture. Ralph is the tormented clown crying on the inside, while Bruno is the innovative quiet unassuming genius who has a problem with collaboration. Leroy is an angry accidental talent, and Montgomery is a lonely young man living in the shadow of his successful absentee actress mother. We follow these eight vulnerable young people as they navigate through the world, trying to find their place within it while their gruelling efforts are compelling. Fame is a punchy, tough movie and it works.
The music is an exciting mix of rock, disco, blues, jazz and contemporary Broadway. It represents the dreams and passions of the youthful cast, but also scares away the ghosts that have haunted the halls of the High School of Performing Arts years before. We soon encounter the eight’s adult oppressors/liberators: Bruno’s father is endlessly encouraging, while Doris’s mother is desperate to have her daughter remain the little girl she knows so well (or thinks she knows). Anne Meara is incredible as the home teacher/English teacher Mrs. Sherman, and her battles with the angst-ridden Leroy is one of the film’s most mesmerizing “dance” sequences (outside of actual dance). Leroy’s accidental audition – a thug from the streets who carries knives – is handled with such sincerity, that when he begins to gyrate for the all-female teaching staff, it is engaging, funny, dynamic and somehow moving.
For these poverty stricken kids (Doris explains “We can’t afford a professional children’s school”), art is their outlet, and creativity their life source. They are stuck in permanent ruts –Doris refers to herself as a child, Leroy is plagued by ghetto life, etc. – but this allows them room to dream big and aim high. The film allows these characters room to develop – for example, Bruno comes to understand the importance of collaboration with Coco – but it also does something brave and innovative as it leaves characters to metaphorically die in obscurity. For example, although Lisa pops up in the finale opening “I Sing the Body Electric” with her beautiful dulcet tones, we have no idea what happened to her through the time she nearly kills herself to those closing moments. Doris is given a traditional story arc, while her male counterpart Ralph gets the most dramatic moments. Maureen Teefy and Barry Miller’s magnificent performances in these roles are brilliant, and make us care about these fragile wannabes.
The film is a phenomenal example of just how well cross cutting plots, narrative multiples and dramatic ups and downs can work. The comic elements peppered throughout the film are fun, but ultimately are in the service of an overwhelming melancholy and depressing realism. This is a film made for youngsters thinking that they can make it in the arts, but painfully showcasing the harsh realities and truths which are expressed with a street roughness. But this doesn’t mean the film is completely joyless, as there is light within the oppressive darkness. For example, Doris’s audition with the Streisand number “The Way We Were” is both funny and heartbreaking – a little girl lost, up on stage not at all understanding the lyric she sings, while her mother sobs, lost in memory of what used to be. While this occurs, the rascally Ralph bounces from one department to the next, lying to each faculty, before ending up settled in the drama block making for some comic banter to embrace.
There is also a determination forced into these children that comes from desperation and tragedy – Ralph is haunted by the ghost of dead comedian Freddie Prinze, while when the drama teacher asks Doris, “What will you do if you don’t make it?”, before she can even answer, her mother steps in with “We’ll make it”. But the power to grow is something that the youngsters also find within one another. Bruno is the secret genius; the kid that hides away in his bedroom and composes epic scores with a keen interest in the electronic music trend that was burgeoning during the time. When Coco insists that he start a band with her, he is reluctant, but when he hears her knock out “Out Here On My Own”, he is blown away and sees the merits in combining artistic talents.
All of these attributes play out on the mean streets of New York, and the grunge elements of the film are overwhelming. Parker captures the filth and the fury, the anger and alienation, the loneliness, desperation, sadness and turmoil of the story perfectly. But he also throws us on our heads: throughout the entire film we are manipulated by, but also attracted to, these endearing teens. We want them to succeed, but then late in the piece Parker has Mrs. Sherman scream out “Don’t you kids think of anyone else but yourself?” and this brings it all home. A film that is based on the yearnings of these teenagers is revealed as nothing more than selfishness. Parker’s revelation here is both a poignant and shocking one.
Inspired dialogue drives the multiple storylines, most notably through the exchanges made between the black Coco and white Hilary who are fighting over Leroy’s affections. It is delicious and catty, and an insight into cultural difference. Hilary is a splendid talent; slumming it to perfect her art. Her artistic life is jeopardized when she falls pregnant, and her painfully real monologue near the end of the film to a cold and unfeeling nurse as she seeks an abortion is brittle and haunting. Dreams are destroyed and trivialized in Fame, just as they are lauded.
The dark subject matter is biting and very real, and yet somehow disposable. Coco talks about various schools and says “You don’t get raped in the hallways”, giving us an idea of high school being a continual place of threat. The closing thirty minutes of the film is gruelling and uncompromising, where hardship and menace come to the fore. It is a ruthless exploration into the violent nature of art and damaged youth. The opening moments, however, come at us with lightning speed and a high energy that is both hopeful and already devastating. Leroy’s audition is sexual: a talented and natural dancer, but someone completely enraged by his situation (especially his illiteracy). While the extremes in profanity, the constant “fuck you”, “fuck this” and “fuck that” reflects his ghetto background and the film’s unapologetic take on the different racial experiences (the white, the black, the immigrant, the Jewish, the Latino etc) are continually bought to the foreground in brutal form. The film is also chilling in places. When Doris’s mother answers the phone and realizes that her baby girl has been accepted into the High School of Performing Arts, the music swells and we hit the first year. It is a brilliant moment: so moving and hopeful and yet, like the rest of the film, painted with powerful bleak desperation and despair. The difference in culture is also articulated beautifully during this sequence as the naïve Doris steps out of the subway and is pushed over by an angry New Yorker. She drops her head shots and scrambles to collect them. Meanwhile, a fight breaks out in the street which doesn’t phase Coco who has her head stuck in a copy of Variety, while the sheltered Montgomery is shocked by the image of a man beating a woman.
Ebonics – a language that was introduced to some urban schools across America, an urban lexicon associated in the black ghettos –props up in Fame as Leroy refuses to learn to “speak white”. This is much to the dismay of his English teacher Miss Sherman, who wants the boy to read in order to become enlightened. Each teacher in Fame is both an assistant but also an antagonist. The marvelous moment as each teacher expresses their concerns to each class is perfect. Teachers in dance, drama and music all declare that they are “the most important classes”, one of the finest examples of the power of adult ego and authority as the road to education within the film. The tragic elements of the film – the drug abuse, the self-doubt, the suicide attempts, the sexual abuse – paints a world populated by people who want to “catch the moon in their hand”. However, these same people hear that “dance is not a way of getting through school, it’s a way of life” and that most actors are waiting tables or cleaning other people’s apartments. Hope and opportunity – as well as hard work and personal sacrifice – are grim realities that will drive them into a void of self-destruction or make them vulnerable to monsters. In the face of this, when we find out who Ralph’s “two chicks” are (not lovers, but his little sisters he loves and protects so dearly), the film is powered by an endearing heart beat: and in this case, the fact that Ralph is not at all a sleaze but instead a sensitive boy devoted to the health and welfare of his family who are vulnerable to the “rats” that plague the city, such as rapists and junkies, it is even more painful when we see him descend into a life of drugs and crippling depression.
The songs (written by Michael Gore, Dean Pitchford and Lesley Gore) express character but are played diegetically. “Hot Lunch Jam” is an uplifting moment that comes in early, where the talented youngsters improvise a musical scenario: Coco takes the lead vocal and here we are introduced to Irene Cara’s rich abilities as a singer. These poor working class and ghetto kids shine, culminating in the superb “I Sing the Body Electric” which acts as the film’s finale. However, in these life affirming and energetic musical moments there is also a profound sadness and a desperate cry for acceptance that is both endearing and wistful. This is the genius of artists like Gore and Pitchford: they are magicians at crafting musical scenarios and painting them with simultaneous melancholy, confusion, determination, triumph and tragedy. Connections between song and character are subtle but strategically constructed. This is a musical that comes from the street and lives and breathes on the asphalt stretches of New York. Coco’s passionate determination to be a star is born from the streets, and the music that floats in and out of Fame is an extension, and expression, of that. Characters connect with one another, and prove their sensitivity through the numbers they get to play out. The drama kids – Doris, Montgomery and Ralph – form a lovely trio akin to Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo and James Dean from Rebel Without A Cause, and this connection drives their personal purpose as artists as well as friends. The characters link up emotionally and have common ground, even though they also diverge in important ways, too.
The iconic scene where the title number is blasted through speakers on top of Bruno’s dad’s taxi is part of eighties film legend. Irene Cara’s vocals belting out “Remember my name/ Fame / I’m gonna live forever” as youngsters dance on car rooftops is one of the strongest images of youth cinema: a celebration of hope in a world of crushing self-doubt and despair. Bruno’s father and an aggressive truck driver get into a fight as young students dance across the asphalt, a perfect condensation of the constant battle between an older generation that is completely unaware of the sincerity of youth. If they miss this pure emotionally aware mode of expression, than they must always remain detached from it. The eighties was to be the decade of blind parents and angry, but ultimately sensitive, kids. Finding their own way is what Fame delivers.
Montgomery’s “Never being happy isn’t the same as being unhappy” in his moving monologue about understanding his homosexuality is made more heartbreaking when he sees his straight friends fall in love, whilst he himself remains lonely, while The Rocky Horror Picture Show sequence is presented as a representation of awakening youth, as Doris bursts into a marijuana-induced sense of confidence only to have that crushed by being forced to sing to screaming children at an awful kids party. This fuels the core of her self-realization where she says “I don’t like birthday parties or pink dresses or the Silvermans or Brooklyn or even being Jewish….I mean it’s not bad, but its not all I am”. Barry Miller as Ralph gets two gripping monologues: the first is a performance in many ways, loaded with metaphor and masked with anger and bravado. The second soliloquy about his deformed sister who was abused by his father, and that cold hard fact that his mother would jump from one abusive man to the next, is emotional exorcism. He discusses the idea of laughter being something that lead to his sister being hurt and the power of being “the clown”. All of this is masterfully handled in the writing, direction and performance. The Hispanic buffoon crying on the inside is a nicely realized archetype here. And it is beautiful, right down to Barry Miller’s costuming with his baggy pants and so forth, reflective of a harlequin trying to understand depression but giving people something to laugh at. Ralph’s anger and rage at God and the church plus his contempt for the culture he comes from and detests is summed up when he whispers “I don’t want ‘em laughing…”. Lisa being kicked out of the school and told by her dance teacher “I don’t think you’ll ever be good enough” is an equally harrowing moment. Her dreams smashed, she is ultimately driven to contemplate suicide in the subway while Leroy and Coco sing and tap dance to “Singin’ in the Rain” (a brilliant condensation of the “whistling in the dark” musical trope).
Fame presents a world of abusive and supportive fathers, distant and overbearing mothers, illiteracy and the power of reading, drug abuse, the conflict between generations, art as a means of survival and the possibility of dreams not being realized. It also depicts a throwaway mentality, where talented and gifted naturals seek refuge in narcotics and escapism, rather than honing in on their abilities. The character that truly embodies this is Ralph. He is an intuitive performer and has the makings of a great comedian, but is swamped by an image that he is so desperate to present and besieged by personal anguish, doubt, grief and perpetual sadness. Barry Miller’s performance as the tragic clown Ralph should have garnered him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor that year. His Ralph is yet another character that would creep into the public consciousness around the time, these tormented young boys driven to self-destruction heralded by troubled existences. These boys would pop up in films such as Endless Love (1981), Ordinary People (1979), Christine (1983) and many more. Following in the eighties would be a slew of teen-angst pictures that would prove to be massively successful and very popular with audiences for years to come. Fame would be instrumental in the advent of teen-centric cinema during the decade, and with its freestyle profanity, nudity and dealings with dark concerns such as drugs, parental detachment, attempted suicide, abortion and abuse. It would pave the way for teen films to tackle these themes. Fame delivers New York in all its grittiness and peepshow glory, the same New York City that is the playground for savage streets that blanket brilliant horror films such as Maniac (1980) and street-gang fare such as The Warriors (1979). More teen anguish is represented in the guise of the shy and lonely Montgomery who is seen stepping aside for the heterosexual Ralph and Doris to comfort each other and share a kiss. Montgomery may come from a long line of sexless sissies that Hollywood was so good at dishing out, but his strength is his ability to understand his friends. He is a gay-helper character essentially, but he is also someone who lives on a plateau above the others. He observes, understands and quietly disappears. When he sings “Is It Okay To Call You Mine?” – a lovelorn tender ballad that precedes Doris’s pot-induced “awakening” at The Rocky Horror Picture Show performance – we understand his loneliness and longing for someone to call his own. The film toys with the idea of Montgomery having a quiet crush on Ralph, but never rams it down our throats. Instead, much like the character of Montgomery, it suggests it and then quietly leaves. It’s only until the increasingly bleak end of the picture where his crush is outed and turned into something ugly.
Hilary’s depressing monologue begins the films series of dark climaxes: it doesn’t work out well for any of these kids, and the lack of closure for some of them further demonstrates the brilliance of Alan Parker and his refusal to tie things up with pretty bows. Parker doesn’t want to let us know what happened to Bruno or to Lisa, but instead he throws them into the mix in the finale. Who knows what their lives will entail after that? Missing from the finale are Ralph and Hilary, while Coco seems unscathed by her horrific experiences earlier on where she is exploited. Late in the picture, a sleazy opportunist preys on Coco and offers her a “screen test”. It is a distressing scene as Coco is talked into removing her blouse on camera for the lascivious sex criminal that pretends to be a French director. Moments before Coco’s ordeal, Mrs. Sherwood’s dying husband acts as a platform for her and Leroy to finally understand one another. A final peace is made as Leroy learns compassion and his first moment of selflessness. Ultimately, Alan Parker’s excellent Fame is a gritty picture but its message is that in time we will all be stars – be they shining within the body electric, or reflected in the dingy alleyways that dart back and forth far from the Great White Way.