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'Fame'

DanceCultureArtMovies

The classes in "Fame" include acting, singing and dancing. What the movie really needed is a class in screenwriting. This film has premises -- the schoolrooms, stages and cafeteria of the Professional Performing Arts School in Hell's Kitchen, New York -- but no premise. It simply plops a handful of aspiring entertainers and artists and a few teachers in front of the camera and samples their lives and work from audition day to graduation. And I do mean "samples": it's as if every bit of potential talent or conflict has been put through a digital synthesizer.

The youthful wannabes aren't full-blooded enough to be called characters. They're melodramatic set-ups, like the pianist with the secret socko voice and the parents who just want her to play classical, or the Iowa ballet dancer who may not be strong enough to partner even willowy ballerinas. The only unpredictable thing about this movie is the all-encompassing totality of its banality.

I know everything old can be new again, but this film must be targeting teenagers who've never seen a music video.

The singers fare better than the dancers: at least a couple of vocalists get to deliver entire numbers simply, from beginning to end. The first-time director, Kevin Tancharoen, a former dancer himself, subjects most of his performers to the kind of choreography and editing that reduce even thrilling leaps or tap moves to design elements or show-off feats. (There's more fun to be had in the "Stomp"-meets-Busby Berkeley trickery of the new Campbell's healthy soup commercials.)

Fans of the desperately crowd-pleasing 1980 "Fame," hoping for an updated shot of teenage angst and uplift or a nostalgic second look at "the 'Fame' school" (New York's High School for Performing Arts, predecessor of the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and the Performing Arts), must settle for a glimpse of original "Fame" star Debbie Allen as the principal.

With figures like the naiive, over-achieving pretty girl who doesn't know when a couch is a casting couch, or the super dancer who turns out to have a history of depression and a taste for exciting boyfriends, this movie stumbles even when it "just goes through the paces."

At least a couple of the actors playing teachers bring occasional whiffs of actual wisdom into the movie, especially Charles S. Dutton as the acting teacher and Bebe Neuwirth as the dance instructor. And Kelsey Grammer exploits his talent for kindhearted crust as the classical-music guru. But just when you start musing that these characters could have stories more fascinating than those of their youthful charges, you're hit with the mini-bathos of Megan Mullally as a singing coach who could have been a musical-comedy contender.

"Fame" has today's usual gritty form of slick to it, but in every other way it's an Amateur Hour and a half.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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