Fame (United States, 1980)

May 31, 2024
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Fame Poster

Fame was released at the dawn of the 1980s – a high school/coming-of-age film arriving in the forefront of a genre that exploded during the decade. This was a pre-John Hughes movie and, as such, is barely recognizable as what the “teen movie” was to become. Although it features tropes that would become commonplace, it is arguably more interesting because of the differences. They fly-on-the-wall perspective, most evident in the first chapter (“Auditions”), makes for fascinating viewing, with the editing snappily moving us from character-to-character, introducing each with remarkable economy. Alas, there are ultimately too many of those characters and Fame’s inability to flesh-out them out undermines its overall effectiveness. It remains an entertaining time-capsule excursion but greatness eludes the best efforts of director Alan Parker.

Fame is easily confused with the TV series that was spun off from the film and ultimately became more popular. There was also an ill-advised remake in 2009 (the less said about that, the better). The name most closely associated with the Fame franchise is Debbie Allen. However, although she’s in the movie, her part is minimal. She was front-and-center for the TV series, however (and also appeared in the remake). The production is an ensemble piece but if one was to single out one performer as having the biggest impact, it would be Irene Cara, who sings the title song and provides a heart-wrenching rendition of “Out Here on My Own” (which would go on to become a Top 20 hit).

The movie is divided into five chapters: “Audition,” “Freshman Year,” “Sophomore Year,” “Junior Year,” and “Senior Year.” Attempting to tell the stories of eight teenagers at New York City’s High School of Performing Arts seems like a daunting task and the screenplay, credited to Christopher Gore, isn’t always up to the task. The roster of highlighted students includes Coco Hernandez (Irene Cara), a singer/dancer/actress who befriends musician Bruno Martelli (Lee Curreri); Doris Finsecker (Maureen Teefy), a shy Jewish singer with a Type-A mother; boorish would-be comedian Ralph Garci (Barry Miller), who idolizes Freddie Prinze and becomes interested in Doris; Montgomery MacNeil (Paul McCrane), an introverted gay man who is befriended by Doris and Ralph; Leroy Johnson (Gene Anthony Ray), a talented dancer with contempt for authority and a runaway temper; and Lisa Monroe (Laura Dean), who is constantly accused of being lazy.

Some of the characters are better defined than others, with the trio of Doris, Ralph, and Montgomery being the closest to three-dimensional even though their primary conflicts are ridded with cliches. Doris and Ralph’s date at a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a highlight. Due to Irene Cara’s charisma, Coco stands out, but her arc is weak until the final act. One key scene featuring an encounter between her and an “amateur director” is startling in its illustration of how a mixture of naivete and desperation can put a young acting wannabe in an untenable position.

Tonally, Fame is a study in vacillation. Although principally dramatic in nature, there are times when it veers into teen comedy territory. (Fame’s peep-hole scene predated one in Porky’s by a year.) Then there are the musical aspects. The most notable is the outdoor dance production of “Fame,” a before-its-time flash mob performance in the middle of a New York City street. Enjoyable as it may be, it’s a bizarre sequence, primarily because it seems to belong in another film. The excuse for shoehorning into the movie makes little sense.

Sir Alan Parker’s involvement as director is indicative of a higher degree of sophistication than what one normally associates with the genre. Parker, whose ‘80s movies included Shoot the Moon, Birdy, Angel Heart, and Mississippi Burning, wasn’t interested in making a vapid teen movie. His influence is most keenly felt early in the proceedings as the story flows seamlessly from character-to-character. One of the great strengths of Fame is its ability to draw the viewer in. The editing is excellent, imparting an energetic pacing to the proceedings. The viewer feels like they’re in the midst of organized chaos.

As with many older movies, this one works today in part because of how it reveals aspects of American culture during the time at which it was produced. Although Fame was released in 1980, it’s a product of ‘70s cinema and reflective of attitudes of the time. This can be seen in the character of Montgomery, a gay man struggling to come to grips with his sexuality. Cliched dramatic stories aside, the movie has a gritty charm and overall likeability that makes it worth revisiting for an understanding of how both the genre and society’s perceptions have evolved over the nearly half-century since the movie’s germination.

Fame (United States, 1980)

Director: Alan Parker
Cast: Irene Cara, Maureen Teefy, Paul McCrane, Barry Miller, Lee Curreri, Laura Dean, Gene Anthony Ray, Antonia Franceschi, Debbie Allen
Home Release Date: 2024-05-31
Screenplay: Christopher Gore
Cinematography: Michael Seresin
Music: Michael Gore
U.S. Distributor: United Artists
Run Time: 2:13
U.S. Home Release Date: 2024-05-31
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1