Warner Bros. // 1980 // 133 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // January 26th, 2010
If they've really got what it takes, it's going to take everything they've got.
Director Alan Parker seems hellbent on reinventing the musical if you look hard down his resume. He worked with rock icons Pink Floyd on the acid influenced The Wall, let pop idol Madonna take on Evita, had teen dream Scott Baio croon to Jodie Foster in Bugsy Malone, and showed us raw Irish soul with The Commitments. But was there ever so sweet a valentine to the movie musical as the one he delivered featuring kids of New York City who dreamed of seeing their names in lights? Fame is the movie that most dancers, actors, and musicians watch for inspiration in their formative years. And despite a few different television series and a 2009 makeover, it remains the best meditation on the joy and sorrow of what it takes to be an artist. Fame the original movie is the real deal, and all the rest are but pale imitations.
The film follows a handful of students as they try out for and go through their formative years at New York City's High School for the Performing Arts. Each year is given its own segment, and we see the kids grow in their skills and maturity as reality invades their dreams of fortune and fame as performers. Featured in the cast are Irene Cara who launched her singing career from the film, and Paul McCrane who ended up on ER. Four of the film's stars: Gene Anthony Ray, Lee Curreri, Albert Hague and Debbie Allen went on to reprise their roles in the television series which started in 1982.
There's a reason the film feels authentic, because a place like this exists. The school is based on the real-life Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan which at the time would not let Alan Parker film on location because they were concerned about content. Certainly his drama about Turkish prisons called Midnight Express was fresh in the school's mind, and they feared he would give the same treatment to their institution. The cast features many real life graduates of the school, so the authenticity runs high. Most all of the cast were close to the ages of their characters, and Fame surprisingly has some kids that truly look like kids.
Fame has been cited as being one of the best teen movies of all time, and it also holds a special place in its film genre. What makes Fame so original as a movie musical is that it continues the tradition of Bob Fosse's Cabaret, having the performances of songs come directly out of the kids doing numbers at the school. Certainly the lunch room and impromptu street dancing are a bit of a stretch, but not too far from reality at any point. Another aspect that made the material daring is that Fame does not shy away from heavy problems. Unlike in the candy coated remake, these kids face ugly stuff such as struggling with their sexuality, drug usage, physical abuse, exploitation, rape, and abortion. The film never pulls any punches, always showing the good and bad in every character and every situation.
The Blu-ray disc seems to repeat a lot of what was offered on the last iteration of Fame on DVD. Colors look a little more crisp, and saturation levels are very satisfying. Black levels do seem a bit manipulated, but that is doubtlessly caused as a side effect to making things more effective in contrast. The grainy film looks just fine on Blu-ray, and could be considered a slight step up from DVD. The soundscape is problematic, offering a decidedly tinny and thin field. It all sounds overly compressed, which is surprising since the film was the first to use digital sound during production. There's not much differentiation of speakers or directional effects. The sound design is not represented well, and it seems we get a substandard end result. Definitely do not upgrade to Blu-ray in hopes that the music will sound much better; it simply doesn't.
Extras are repeats of the DVD edition with no exclusives to the new high definition format. The director's commentary is insightful and well-spoken by Alan Parker, and he is joined in video segments by some of the cast. These are nice bits recorded for the film's 25th anniversary DVD release. They can run with the movie, or you can pick them off individually off a sub menu in the extras section. Also included is a vintage "Making Of" featurette which is a simple studio publicity effort that looks quite dated but remains a lot of fun. The featurette on the real high school is a nice touch, also ported over from that aforementioned DVD edition.
Fame looks great on Blu-ray, and I have no qualms about the transfer or high definition elements outside of the soundtrack. Yet the film was made in 1979 when technology was not about crisp 1080 resolution, and soundtracks were barely made for two speakers let alone five. Also these special features are easily found on the DVD format, and anybody who owns that edition should not upgrade expecting anything new or better than what they already own. Certainly if you're buying it without a previous copy I would want the slight upgrades of the Blu-ray, but it is not a compelling "gotta get this" release for fans who have a prior copy.
Fame remains one of the finest films ever made about what it's like to be a young artist, and there's nothing more truthful than the dark edges it reveals. It's not your typical sappy teen musical that seems so popular these days. It always feels one hundred percent authentic to the kids it portrays and the profession they are pursuing. Fame costs, and you pay in sweat and tears. Nobody understood that better than Alan Parker and his cast of real life performing artists.
Not guilty of selling short the experience of a high school that focuses on
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (German)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Italian)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 133 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Rated R