Friday, June 15, 2018

FAME 1980

"I am so excited because I'm gonna go to the High School of Performing Arts! I mean, I was dying to be a serious actress. Anyway, it's the first day of acting classand we're in the auditorium and the teacher, Mr. Karp... ."    
                                                       A Chorus Line - James Kirkwood & Nicholas Dante

I read recently that the estate of choreographer/director Michael Bennett is planning a 2025 Broadway revival of A Chorus Line to commemorate its 50th Anniversary (feel old yet?). A Chorus Line opened on Broadway in July of 1975, and I still have vivid memories of seeing the touring company when it played San Francisco in 1976. A theatrical experience that, to this day, has never been surpassed.
I didn’t see the iconic musical’s most recent incarnation, the official 2006 Broadway revival, but I recall with equal vividness a conversation I had at the time with a young dance student who’d just returned from seeing the NY production, his first-ever encounter with A Chorus Line. He raved about the dancing and thoroughly enjoyed the production, but in the end was at a loss to understand the show’s reputation as a groundbreaking classic: “I liked it…I just don’t get what all the fuss was about!”  
Said “fuss” being that A Chorus Line won nine Tony Awards including Best Musical, the Pulitzer Prize, ran for 15 years on Broadway, and was an seminal and influential pop culture phenomenon the world over.
While listening and resisting the impulse to explain the significance of A Chorus Line by means of sign language (i.e., my hands around his throat), it became apparent to me that this youngster’s reaction was perhaps born of his having grown up during the Disneyfication years of Broadway. Raised in the post-The Lion King/Wicked world of musical-theater-as-amusement-park-attraction, seeing a show consisting of little more than a bare stage and a troupe of talented dancer/actor/singers must have come as something of a shock.
Similarly, having been weaned on stunt-dance movies like Step Up #643 and dance competition TV shows like So You Think You Can Dance, it's also likely that this young man grew up with a perception of dance as athletic spectacle. I can't imagine Michael Bennett’s classic musical theater choreography looks very impressive when one has been conditioned to see dance performance in terms of Herculean feats of gymnastic strength, flexibility, and showboating "Look at me!" grandstanding of the sort antithetical to the “move as one” aesthetic of chorus work (“Don’t pop your head, Cassie!”).
However, there was one eye-opening takeaway from our conversation which gave me a better grasp of why new generations might find themselves at a loss to understand exactly what my generation found so powerful and innovative about A Chorus Line: personal self-disclosure as a metaphor for the significance of the individual. A Chorus Line came out smack in the middle of the "Me Generation," when the notion that the average person might have a story worth telling was still something of a novelty.
In today’s climate of reality-TV, famous-at-any-price celebrity, and toxic social media oversharing; nothing dates A Chorus Line more than its cast of dancers who shun having the spotlight shone on them. They recoil from being asked to talk about themselves, don't like getting personal, and (horrors of horrors) resist being the center of attention. They'd prefer to communicate through dance, finding both dignity and self respect in being allowed to do what they do for love. Even if it means being part of a corps of dancers; an anonymous, nameless, member of a chorus line.

As nakedly honest and heartachingly revelatory as those monologues seemed to me in 1976, I suspect that nothing disclosed by those characters would even warrant more than a handful of “likes” on Twitter today. This awareness of the degree to which the show business landscape has changed over the years became an ineradicable part of my revisiting one of my favorite musicals of the ‘80s: Alan Parker’s Fame
Irene Cara as Coco Hernandez
"How bright our spirits go shooting out into space depends on how much we contribute to the earthly brilliance of this world. And I mean to be a major contributor. A sure-as-shit major contributor."
Gene Anthony Ray as Leroy Johnson
"I'm gonna be a good dancer. You will NOT keep me down!"
Maureen Teefy as Doris Finsecker
"If I don't have a personality of my own, so what? 

I'm an actress. I can put on as many personalities as I want!"
Barry Miller as Ralph Garci (Raul Garcia)
"That's the meanest high there is. It beats dope. It beats sex. I LOVE fucking acting!"
Paul McCrane as Montgomery McNeil
"I mean, never being happy isn't the same as being unhappy."
Laura Dean as Lisa Monroe
"I only ever wanted to be a dancer."
Lee Curreri as Bruno Martelli
"You're not my age. Nobody's my age. Maybe I'm ahead of my time!"
Antonia Francheschi as Hilary van Doren
"You see, I've always had this crazy dream of dancing all the classical roles before I'm 21."

Fame, the American feature film debut of British director Alan Parker (Bugsy Malone, Midnight Express) was inspired—according to Parker, but denied by producer David De Silva—by A Chorus Line. Specifically, the dramatic potential suggested by the song “Nothing,” which references a young dancer’s early experiences attending New York’s High School of Performing Arts.

In a way, that makes Christopher Gore’s original screenplay for Fame something of a prequel to A Chorus Line; being that the film concerns itself with the formative experiences in the lives of eight young theater hopefuls at The High School of Performing Arts—from freshman auditions to senior graduation. Taking the kids from roughly the ages of 14 to 18, the movie combines elements of the coming-of-age film, the slice of life drama, and the backstage musical. Most effectively (and entertainingly), Fame also recalls and revitalizes those fondly-remembered high-school movies of my youth: Up The Down Staircase, The Trouble With Angels, To Sir With Love, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Blending elements of comedy and drama, the four-year journey of the students of PA (High School of Performing Arts) is, contrary to its title and the sanitized, rah-rah movies and TV shows it inspired, a fairly dark, hard-shelled look at the blood, sweat, and tears that go into pursuing a life in the arts. Ironically, the achievement of fame doesn’t even factor into the fates of the characters.
Ann Meara as Mrs. Sherwood
Jim Moody as acting teacher Mr. Farrell
Fame's main characters represent a familiar cross-section of ethnic, cultural, and temperamental types, and as such, their experiences and relationships tend to follow a fairly predictable arc. There’s driven Coco (triple threat dancer/singer/actor); brash Leroy (dancer); shy Doris (actor/singer), troubled Ralph (actor/stand-up comic); closeted Montgomery (actor/singer); solitary Bruno (musician/composer), directionless Lisa (dancer or actor…whatever), and self-assured Hilary (ballerina). These terse descriptions are in no way a diminution of the characters or performances; merely an indicator of the built-in limitations of the film’s multi-character structure.
Ilse Sass and Albert Hague as Mrs. Tossoff & Mr. Sharofsky
Debbie Allen and Joanna Merlin as honor student Lydia Grant and ballet instructor Miss Berg

In order to make room for songs and dance numbers while tackling everything from first love, illiteracy, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, and sexual exploitation; it’s necessary for Fame to resort to a bit of narrative shorthand. But the sublime triumph of the script and the film as a whole—which stands as a resounding testament to Parker and the film’s remarkably engaging cast—is that the abbreviated feeling of the various vignettes only leave you wanting more. No particular character or storyline overstays its welcome.

The end result, by virtue of the script's emotional vitality and the cinematic ingenuity of cinematographer Michael Seresin and longtime Alan Parker editor Gerry Hambling, is that the film achieves moments of real poignancy and passion.
Never less than an exhilarating, kinetic delight, Fame, instead of avoiding the “aspiring teens put on a show” tropes standardized by Judy Garland Mickey Rooney in those old MGM musicals, cozies up to them and updates these showbiz movie conventions in surprising ways. I found myself responding to clichés I thought I’d grown immune to ages ago.
As teen musical’s go, Fame is distinguished by its R-rated grittiness and the strength of its supporting cast of pleasingly inclusive and interesting fresh faces. The kids - many of them students from the real High School of Performing Arts - look like kids, dress like kids, and exude an appealing naturalness. Mercifully spared the coyness in language and presentation that marred the already pretty terrible 2009 PG-rated remake; Fame 1980 presents a vision of New York simultaneously seedy and scintillating. Bracingly at odds with the all-white pop-culture visions of Manhattan foisted upon us by Woody Allen and TV shows like Sex & the City, Seinfeld, and Friends; Fame’s New York actually looks like New York. It’s level of inclusion (it’s nice to see so many PoC studying ballet, classical music, and Shakespearean acting) is something 2018 filmmakers could still take a lesson from.
Carol Massenburg as Shirley Mulholland ("That's two L's")
One feels the camera could be trained on any of the kids in the cast and still produce a fascinating story. One of my favorite small roles, played with authenticity, humor, and sass, yet never fails to break my heart, is that of Shirley, Leroy's less-then-gifted dance partner.

If I have any criticisms at all, they’re of the subjective, nit-picking sort. For all the scenes that soar (the audition sequence is so good it could stand alone as a short film), there are head-scratchers like the recurring gag that asks us to share the ogling gaze of the adolescent boys peeking into the girls’ locker room. My problem isn’t so much with the fact that this sort of mainstreamed harassment has been normalized with “boys will be boys” rhetoric for too long; it’s that--given how Coco’s story plays out (a scene in which, once again, the director’s gaze renders us complicit in a woman’s sexual exploitation) it baffles me how a director can display so much sensitivity in some areas while revealing such a blind spot in others.
When I was young, I thought the sequence in which Coco is taken in by a pervy con man (one calling himself Francois Lafete, no less) lacked credibility. I thought it portrayed Coco as dumb, which she never was. Now I see the scene as being considerably smarter and more perceptive of Coco's fatal character flaw than I'd first realized. She prides herself on being a savvy professional who knows all the angles. When I watched the scene again I noticed how much lying and obfuscating Coco does in an effort to seize a perceived advantage. This con is able to work only because Coco is led to believe she has the upper hand.

Another of my gripes is the character of Montgomery. He simply hasn’t aged very well. Putting aside his cringe-worthy monologue (“Gay used to mean such a happy kind of word once.”), I give Fame credit for a positive portrayal of a gay character in a mainstream film at a time when William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) gave us yet another homicidal homosexual, and The Village People were still tap dancing around their own queer identity (the deeply closeted Can’t Stop The Music was released just a month later). But for me, Montgomery is a throwback to the days when movies thought the best way to make a controversial character sympathetic was to render them as a figure of pity.

As a teen grappling with his homosexuality, Montgomery feels isolated (in a Performing Arts School, yet!), but we in the audience can see he’s surrounded by all manner of gay kids. I don't expect anything as progressive as giving him a high-school sweetheart, but it would have been nice for his character to see that he wasn't the only one, and that "gay" could be happy. But, as written, Montgomery is content to stay on the sidelines, looking all alabaster and moony while playing Queer Eye for the Straight Guy & Gal to Doris and Ralph. At least he gets his own song (penned by McCrane).
Red Light
My functioning gaydar knew in 1980 that the late Gene Anthony Ray was gay long before it was confirmed personally by Fame TV show cast members several years later after I had become a dancer myself. Making his film debut in Fame, the dynamic Ray passed away from an HIV-related stroke in 2003.

Fame was released three years before Star Search popularized caterwauling as singing and made way for today’s barrage of I-deserve-fame-because-I-want-it, celebrity-in-an-instant horse races like American Idol, The Voice, and America’s Got Talent. Thus, one of the things I find most gratifying about Fame is its realistic perspective and persistent repudiation of the fame myths our culture keeps feeding young people.
I've always perceived A Chorus Line's glittering finale to be a much more heartbreaking and stark close to the show than its rousing melody would have us believe (after spending an entire evening getting to see these dancers as unique individuals, it is their fate to once again fade into chorus anonymity). Similarly, I've never felt Fame's exuberant theme song or its emphatic title to be really  what the film is all about. The cocksure lyrics (in the context of the film, written by Coco, but actually written by Dean Pitchford to Michael Gore's music) may reflect Coco's determined quest for for fame and immortality, but the movie is more about the pain and sacrifices of chasing success. For me, the Oscar-winning song "Fame" is less a paean to the power of dreams than a pep-talk anthem to  optimistic wishful thinking.
Leslie Quickley as Sheila
Fame's casting is so spot-on and the kids so idiosyncratic and charming that no matter how brief their on-camera time, you come to look for them in scene after scene. They become the ones you cheer for in the big graduation number 

Fame is technically an '80s film, but its roots are clearly in the '70s. By this I mean it's a product of a  '70s film sensibility. That decade-affixed mindset where creative choices were made appropriate to the material (swearing, nudity, drug use, sex) and not simply grinding out a feel-good musical to pander to the lucrative PG-rating demographic. I can't imagine a studio today releasing films like Fame or Saturday Night Fever with R-ratings. Some accounting actuary or focus-group survey would point out how much more money could be made from a PG release, and that would be the end of the very grittiness that gives these films their uniqueness.
I've always thought Fame was a very good movie, but in these post-High-School Musical years it has taken on the feel of a genuine classic. One look at the remake (a film I recommend you avoid at all costs) confirms that what Alan Parker and company have pulled off here is something very, very special. So good that even the watered-down TV show and fairly awful theatrical version couldn't defile it.
What Are You Doing Now?
Anyone who knows an actor learns quickly never to ask that question, for it invariably leads to the awkward conversation centered around the jobs that one didn't get. I love that Fame includes such painful, reality-check moments. Here the current graduating class encounters the most promising senior of their Freshman year (Boyd Gaines)...waiting tables

An example of ensemble casting at its finest, I can't say there's a single performance in Fame I find any fault with. The veterans and novices deliver with equal assurance, a credit to Parker casting cannily close both to type and the relative demands of each role. To cite a particular favorite is less a comparative assessment of one player being "better" than another, so much as it's a recounting of my own emotional journey watching the film. Based on who I am and how I'm wired, some plot points and characters just spoke to me more persuasively than others.
Irene Cara's delicacy (those cheekbones!) contrasts with her character's hardness, 
making for a compelling and strong screen presence. Cara, already a 10-year showbiz veteran by 1980, went on to win an Oscar, Golden Globe, and a Grammy for co-writing the theme song to Flashdance (1983)
I have to say that the Doris/Ralph relationship is my favorite in the film. I didn't expect to like their characters, but the actors bring some remarkable nuances to their performances. Just watch how Miller listens in his scenes.
The contentious relationship between English teacher Mrs. Sherwood and Leroy is very nicely played.
Ann Meara really gives the inexperienced Ray a lot to work off of. He's at his best opposite her
As stated, it's not a matter of assigning the label "best" to anyone, but I really liked the performances of Barry Miller and Paul McCrane. McCrane's earnest naturalism redeems what I find lacking in the role as written. Miller went on to win a Tony Award for Biloxi Blues in 1985 while McCrane won an Emmy for the TV series Harry's Law (2011) on whose finale he sang the song he wrote and performs in Fame.

The music and dancing in Fame is glorious. I'm not exactly sure why, but it's one of the few '80s soundtracks that doesn't sound painfully dated. That's not to say the sound isn't very much locked into the time, for it is. But like the scores to many great musicals, it has a sound characteristic of the time and place depicted, it doesn't have that overly-trendy sound (like say Voyage of the Rock Aliens, or Earth Girls are Easy) that feels so corny and out of date it only has a distancing effect.
Hot Lunch Jam
Hot Lunch Jam
For sheer percussive energy, you can't beat this number. Cara's vocals slay
I Sing the Body Electric
Each and every time I make a bet with myself that I'm not going to get
waterworks from the graduation finale number. A bet I lose each and every time. 
Fame choreographers Louis Falco (r.) & William Gornel

As you can see from the photo above, Fame opened at Hollywood's Cinerama Dome on May 16th, 1980, which is the date I saw it and fell in love. Although I was a big fan of Alan Parker, the only names in the cast familiar to me were Barry Miller (who I thought was as terrific in Saturday Night Fever); Anne Meara (from the comedy duo [Jerry]Stiller & Meara); and most famously, Irene Cara. Fame is credited with launching Cara's career, but I remembered her from TV's The Electric Company and Roots, and on the big screen in Sparkle and Aaron Loves Angela.

Pre-release publicity was minimal, so I didn't know what to expect. Try to imagine, on that big Cinerama screen, what it was like to discover all these talented unknowns and hear for the first time those songs that are now almost too-familiar. A rousing, thrilling motion picture experience from start to finish. And I returned to see Fame many, many times over the summer. I was enthralled and surprisingly moved by it.
I was still attending film school at the time and working full-time at a bookstore, but within the short window of eight months, the releases of All That Jazz (December -1979), Fame (May -1980) and Xanadu (August-1980) became the dance film trifecta that inspired me to seek a career as a dancer.
The Roland Dupree Dance Academy on 3rd Street in LA is where I took my very first dance class (and eventually taught). Strange to think there was a time I didn't even know what legwarmers were and had to ask someone what a dance belt was (a thong/jock for male dancers); but it's here I studied ballet, tap, jazz, and modern. I wish I could remember when I took this photo, but I attended from 1980 to at least 1984.

As for Fame, one of the main reasons I always get teary-eyed during the film's finale is because in that spectacular display of goosebump-inducing talent (in which the "stars" sung about have nothing to do with celebrity), the experience is like bearing witness to the dedication and hard work that goes into making an artist...into creating something beautiful. It has nothing to do with making someone famous.
The Cast of Fame

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2018


  1. As a creative person who was just starting on their professional road in 1980 “Fame” has always had a special meaning to me. More than anything it reminds me of the endless possibility a young person feels upon starting a new life. The promise, the heartache, the success and the fear of failure that ride that road are all spoken to in this film. Every time I watch it I’m taken back 38 years to that one specific moment of my life and relive it again because of this movie.

  2. I can't imagine Alan Parker could ask for a better testament to what he strove to achieve with this film. I agree that the film beautifully captures the hopeful spirit of youth in all it's boundless idealism and potential...all without turning it into myth. No mean achievement to make a film about dreamers that's mired in reality.
    I appreciate your taking the time to share with us your thoughts on what this film has meant to you. I like to think the film still speaks to creative young people in the same way today.

  3. I haven't seen either "Fame" or "A Chorus Line." Of course, I remember well the theme song from "Fame" as it must have been played a million times on every radio station back in the day. But reading your review/analysis did make me recall a similar movie I did see called "Headin' for Broadway." Looking it up on IMDB I found that it came out almost at exactly the same year and time as "Fame." (Not a coincidence, I imagine). I wondered if you had seen it and how it compared to "Fame" given that its premise is similar in many ways (young people tryin' to make it in the world of art/music/drama). I suspect it may suffer a bit by comparison. I watched it on video about three years after it came out and found it interesting enough to finish. If you haven't seen it, you might check it out. It would probably make an interesting companion piece to "Fame."

    1. Hi Ron
      Wow! Fascinating that I've never heard of this film at all. Especially as it seems to have been released in the exact month FAME came out (which may go to explain why it disappeared without a trace). I've read that it wasn't given a wide release, but I can't imagine it didn't open in LA, yet I don't remember seeing it in the trades or playing at a theater at all. This is the first time I've ever heard of it. Curious, too because its star Rex Smith was pretty popular on the radio at the time (:You Take My Breath Away" was all over the radio in 1979), and actress Vivian Reed was a Tony nominee released a disco album or single at the time.
      This was years before the film's director Joseph Brooks ("You Light Up My Life") became more famous for the rape charges levied against him.
      The film appears to be up on YouTube, s perhaps I'll check it out. It looks very low budget, but I saw a big dance audition scene that seems to have been inspired by "All That Jazz" and it looked promising.
      Thanks for the recommendation. And should you get the chance, I highly recommend "Fame" and i highly suggest you avoid the film version of "A Chorus Line" ...wait until you can catch it on stage.
      Thank you for reading this post!

  4. This was great! I haven't seen fame for a long, long time, but I don't think I could ever forget that sequence with all the students coming out into the street dancing (on cars!), etc... It's fascinating (and sort of sad) that someone as charismatic and promising as Irene Cara was in fame never really could maintain a career on-screen. (I'm getting a flashback of her in something awful with Tatum O'Neal?) I did one college show in 1988 and sort of got a taste of this, but it wasn't until I began performing with more frequency in 1994 that I began to truly understand these sort of characters. (And I saw "A Chorus Line" on stage for the first time only about 3 or 4 years ago and loved it!)

    1. Hi Poseidon
      Thanks a heap! That song may have been played to death, but that scene of those kids leaping out onto the streets and cars is so iconic.
      I've seen Irene Cara in so many things and there is no denying she had all it took to have a screen career. I can't vouch for any of her personal or legal problems, but movie choices like that exploitation flick you referenced didn't help ("Certain Fury"...what does that title even mean? Irene & Tatum: these two Oscar winners were a bad match for material best suited to Linda Blair).
      This was my first revisit to FAME in ages. Surprised that it held up so well. I imagine all your years in theater would provide a lot of insight to the type of characters featured here.
      And congrats for finally getting to see "A Chorus Line"!! Love that show. Thanks for reading and commenting, Poseidon!

  5. I second your feelings about this movie, Ken - I also want to make mention of its lovely song, "Out Here On My Own," which was sung by Cara and has a Schubert-like purity to its melody.

    1. Hi Mark
      I love that song. And love that Alan Parker allows it to be sung in its entirety by Cara in a lovely scene that many have cited as their favorite moment in the film. It is indeed a marvelous ballad, garnering lyricist Lesley Gore (with brother Michael) her sole Oscar nomination. Thanks for calling attention to the song and thank you for reading and commenting!

  6. When I saw this movie I was struck by Irene Cara's uncanny resemblance (vocally too) to Donna Summer, it was like I was watching Donna, Jr.

    1. Ha! The resemblance is keen. I remember thinking exactly the same thing at the time! And it's oddly fitting given that I read how they're really dancing to Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff" during that iconic scene when the dancers take to the streets. The song "Fame" hadn't yet been written.

  7. I was 11 years old when I first saw this film - saw it with my cousins Angela and Tony, who were both 18 and 19 respectively in a small theater in the South Bronx in the summer of '80 and I was completely mesmerized, inspired, blown away, etc. I wanted TO BE one of those kids. I wanted to go to the High School of Performing Arts (auditioned when I was 17 - didn't get in) - but the film was my calling to the world of the arts...and it continues to inspire me every single time I see it. I related to those kids up on the screen - - - they looked and acted like me and my friends - - - . When I got to high school (I attended a graphic arts high school near the Times Square area, not too far from the original site of Performing Arts - - - I got to go to the places they show in the film. Me and my friends would also frequent Friday and Saturday midnight showings of "Rocky Horror" at the 8th Street Playhouse and do "The Time Warp" up on that tiny stage! Watching Fame for me was my youth. It's a deeply moving and beautiful film. Thank you for your very well thought out analysis. It's spot on.

    Favorite scene: When Leroy visits a tearful Mrs. Sherwood at the hospital. That scene guts me every single time.

    I also tear up at that glorious finale: "We are the emperors now, and we are the czars...and in time we will all be stars...."

    Godspeed and God bless.

    1. Hello Carlos
      I'm sure I speak for a lot of readers when I say your heartfelt and evocative memories of seeing FAME capture the spirit and truth of the film. You make seeing it at such an impressionable age sound every bit as exciting and inspiring as I would imagine it to be. I mean, you had the complete and total NY experience! Kudos to you for pursuing your dream.

      The scenes you cite are both major waterworks times for me. The finale is remarkable (and if I failed to salute cinematographer Michael Serasin in my essay, I do so now).
      I found it gratifying to read what FAME meant to you and how it inspired you. I firmly believe that the ability to touch our lives and inspire our dreams is film's essential gift, and comments like yours serve to remind me of the authenticity of that faith.
      Appreciate your kind words and thanks again for reading and commenting!

  8. Very interesting that you cover this wonderful film, Ken, just as I was strongly thinking of it. In fact, on today's iphone playlist as I did my workout were both "Is It Okay if I Call You Mine" and "I Sing the Body Electric" from this soundtrack.

    The new Ryan Murphy series Pose set in the 1980s has made me think of this film often...the young man who plays dancer Damian is so reminiscent of Leroy when he dances...and he is of course enrolled in a School of the Arts... definitely shades of Flashdance in Pose as well...

    Now, thanks to your comprehensive coverage of this film, I MUST see it again ASAP. I forgot Anne Meara was in it too!!


    1. Hey Chris
      Only upon revisiting this film recently was I made aware of how influential it has been. Now that you mention the series POSE (which I've never seen) I'm further convinced of what a bang-up job Alan Parker did with FAME.
      It is a curious coincidence that you had been listening to some of the tracks (still great after all these years). Definitely worth seeing again if you haven't watched it in a while. Unlike the TV series, it gets better with age.
      Thanks, Chris!

  9. Ken,
    Once again you have done nothing less than "NAIL IT!" I was a sophomore in high school in Hollywood the day this movie opened and my friend Suzanne and I ditched to be in the audience of the first screening at the Cinerama Dome. (a surprisingly small audience, too) I was a competitive skater at the time and had also recently learned what a dance belt was. (hahahahaha) The school I attended was Hollywood Professional School, which had originally been established to accommodate kids working professionally in the arts, offering accredited education while being flexible to each student's schedule. For myself, I'd train from 5 AM to 10:30 AM and have classes from 11 to 3. Not that that is very important, but in the early 80's that school was about the closest thing in L.A. proper to PA - and it did not even come close. Anyway, back to that afternoon in the Dome: There's no doubt that the aspirations translated though my path was on ice, and the number of times I got chills while watching the movie were too many to count. As a coming of age film, it was the first time I'd seen characters/peers on screen that weren't the same, homogenized types continuously force fed to my demographic. They had faults, frustrations, backstories(!) and of course dreams. It was a revelation. The casting is just stunning. Anne Meara, who I'd only ever seen playing foil to her husband comedically, blew me away. And I had never realized it but you are so correct about watching for all the supporting characters in the finale and the feeling of joy in their characters' accomplishment that came as their faces flashed on the screen still hits me when I watch this movie. "Hot Lunch" is still one of my favorite musical numbers ever filmed - the exuberance is undeniable. To this day seeing FAME in that theater, first day - first screening, with very few other audience members is the best moviegoing experience of my life. The scope of that particular screen and the fantastic sound drove the power of Parker's film home unlike anything else. This is especially true for "I Sing the Body Electric" and everything that that number is. When that gospel break hit, my tears were interrupted by a very loud cheer of, "Yes!" But as that song came to a close and the swelling of strings drove the inevitable crescendo forward and the conductor's baton moved from left to right on the final note and the entire Cinerama Dome went to black... I was stunned. The audacity of that editing choice was jaw-dropping, and honestly, still is. The acknowledgement to you give to Gerry Hambling is greatly deserved and proven over and over again throughout this film.

    There is an entire conversation to be had over McCrane's character especially being a student at a school of performing arts, although as a skater in that era and surrounded by others who were, like myself, obviously gay, it was a topic we never discussed. I have always wondered if Parker's choice to cast a pale red-head in the role was intentional? And what is to be made of the cap & gown fitting scene with Doris, Ralph & Montgomery? No matter how anyone chooses to decipher it, it was daring for Parker to put a same-sex kiss on screen (and this coming a year + before Making Love.) I will never forget when McCrane joined the cast of ER in the 90's. even without the red locks, I knew exactly who he was. Of course I rewatched the movie then and was surprised to recognize Mizrahi in the cast. Didn't know who the hell he was back in 1980. Ha!

    The series was so bad. The stage "version" was too. I ignored the remake because instinct told me it was the smarter thing to do. Thank you for confirming that I was right to do so.

    Once again, thank you for this post about this film. As always, you have brought fact, opinion and personal experience together in a manner both thought-provoking and illuminating. My appreciation is deep and heartfelt. -daringrod

    1. Hi, daringrod
      What a fabulous memory journey you took all of us on! Again, a part of me envies those who saw this during the impressionable years of their adolescence, because I can well imagine how powerful a film experience it must have provided. I never even knew of the existence of a Hollywood Professional School, so far from being unimportant, your mentioning it in context with seeing this movie informs your recollection of it immeasurably. And what a schedule you had!!
      One of the things FAME does best is tip a hat in tribute to all the hard work and dedication it takes to go to school like everybody else, yet also make time for study in one’s chosen field of the creative arts. I admire that more than I ever do the fantasy of overnight success.
      To be in that environment and see this movie…wow!

      Just reading your description of that first screening is a thrilling reminder of what movies can do. And a salute to the triumph of what Alan Parker pulled off. I especially like your citing of that masterstroke ending. It’s an incredible way to end the film and I recall it as quite breathtaking, the audience breaking out into applause.

      The observation you make about the character of Montgomery is a good one—certainly worthy of discussion and debate. I went to al all boys high school, and while I was certainly not the only gay male there, who WAS gay was never as clear to except in hindsight (my very best friend in high school was gay, but I never knew it or even suspected it. He came out to me after we had both gone away to college, he being inspired by my coming out on my 21st birthday).
      Although there is a prejudicial assumption on my side that kids at a performing arts school would be more open…that could be false. In which case Parker’s take on the character of Montgomery may not be politically as “awake” as I’d like when it comes to screen depictions of gays, but maybe more honest and realistic to the time and characters.
      In any event, I’m always grateful that Parker cast him as a non-exceptional guy devoid of extravagant Mizahi mannerisms (which would undercut the “big reveal” aspect, anyway).

      That cap and gown scene (to me) was heartbreaking. It looked as though Ralph and Montgomery’s friendship survived Ralph’s meltdown, Doris and he were actually through (or at least hadn’t healed yet, if you want to be optimistic), but I always thought that was such a sad sequence because (as I said in the essay, I liked those two characters so much).

      As I write all of that it occurs to me how glad I am that no one ever attempted a FAME sequel! In a way, the lame TV show served as one, but in money-mad Hollywood, it’s hard to believe a hit movie never had a sequel pitch (that we know of).
      Can’t tell you what a thrill it was reading about your first time seeing FAME! Not an overstatement to say it’s a contribution/continuation of my post more than just a comment. I enjoyed reading a great deal, and thank you for taking the time to express it all with so much clarity. Much appreciated!

  10. Hi Ken! Thanks for taking the time to write about one of my all time favorite films. I agree with so many of your points, particularly about this actually LOOKING like New York (much like one of my other favorite movies, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.) And I honestly believe this is the best-edited film I've ever seen. Its rhythm is all its own. -Chris

    1. Hi Chris
      That's so nice of you to thank me for writing about a film. It's a labor of love, I assure you. Revisiting this was a lovely reminder of how vital some contemporary musical can be. I haven't seen the Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 in ages, but I saw it several times on its release. I love those films that capture the look of long-lost NYC.
      And it pleases me that FAME's editing is one of the things you reference, too. It's rather brilliant. As much as I love the film XANADU, it has the feel of being cut by someone with not much of an ear or eye for music. Some of its editing rhythms actually sabotage the energy of the numbers. FAME is a different story altogether; as you say, it has a rhythm of its own that propels the picture.
      Thanks for reading and commenting, Chris. Nice that FAME holds so many good memories for you, too!

  11. Dear Ken: Hi! I'm posting these comments pretty late, but there's a reason. Inspired by you essay, above, two days ago I finally watched "Fame" for the first time ever. It was quite an experience, and I'm glad I did!

    In 1980 when the movie came out, I of course was aware of it, and loved the song "Out Here on My Own," which was in constant radio play. But I also was 15 years old and not yet allowed by my parents to see R-rated movies. (I missed a whole bunch of fascinating musicals of that period due to R-ratings: "All That Jazz," "The Rose," "Hair," "Pennies from Heaven," etc. and have just started to catch up with some of them in recent years.)

    I thought--and the above comments by several others confirm it's true--that "Fame" quite effectively catches the passion and spirit of young people who are driven to be performers. I studied piano for years growing up and had enough talent to be able to win some state-level competitions in my age group. (I impressed my husband a few years ago by managing to run through some passages of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto when we were visiting my dad over the holidays.) I also really enjoyed being in musicals in high school. But I somehow never had the thirst or drive--and undoubtedly, the talent--to try to make performing a career. Maybe I was too lazy, or maybe I had too happy a childhood and adolescence! :)

    Not to embarrass you, but I find your bio so inspirational--especially your decision to follow your dreams and make your art your career.

    Anyway, back to "Fame"--I agree with you that it's wonderful how real the young performers seem, both in personality and in appearance. I suspect that today, there is a secret warehouse in Beverly Hills where movie and TV performers are built according to rigid specifications, one being that they have absolutely no "bad" or unusual features that would distinguish them from anyone else.

    I loved seeing Irene Cara in "Fame," too. I think I first became familiar with her when she played Alex Hailey's mother in "Roots II." Next, I noticed her name as one of the back-up vocalists on the "Music Box" album by Evelyn "Champagne" King. Seeing "Fame" inspired me to do some Internet research on Cara's present-day life. It appears she is doing well and performs currently when she chooses to. It's so nice to hear about an entertainment world "happy ending"!

    P.S. Gene Anthony Ray was a fantastic dancer! But I have to ask--how could anyone NOT have known he was gay, especially after seeing the erotic moves he makes during the "Fame" audition scene!

    1. Hi there, David!

      How thrilling to hear that you saw FAME for the first time! Just this week I heard from someone who saw ALL THAT JAZZ for the first time as well. In both instances it is gratifying to hear that, as much as these films captured a moment in time, they seem to have aged very well.
      Perhaps you told me and I forgot, but I didn’t realize you played piano! How marvelous. I say I think we discussed it before because my partner studied classical piano in college, too, and won a couple of local competitions. He is teaching me how to play now, and his patience is saintly.
      I like that you still play (occasionally, anyway) and, given that you appeared in musicals in high school, I suspect you can both sing and dance a bit?

      I appreciate what you said about my personal path, which I feel rescued me from a future of Lord only knows what.

      Anyhow, I always look at those who seek careers in the performing arts as those who, in a way, have no choice; it’s either pursue that path or perish. But our fame-addicted, success-oriented culture seldom supports and reaffirms that one can find enrichment in playing an instrument, dancing, singing, etc. without feeling compelled to make its one’s living. The base of my dance clientele are people who abandoned dancing when they were young because they knew they couldn’t make a career out of it, only realizing in later years that the pressure to monetize one’s gifts and pleasurable hobbies extinguishes a lot of joy in many people.
      As for FAME, I’m glad you enjoyed it, and while I REALLY recommend that you avoid the remake at all costs, your comment: “I suspect that today, there is a secret warehouse in Beverly Hills where movie and TV performers are built according to rigid specifications, one being that they have absolutely no "bad" or unusual features that would distinguish them from anyone else”—is precisely the problem with the remake. Bland commodified sameness. Like those reality “talent” shows that seem to produce the same colorless, prepackaged pop stars.

      FAME is loaded with unique talent, Irene Cara being one of my favorites (although I hadn’t known about her singing on that Evelyn King album). And it’s wonderful she is still doing what she seems to enjoy.

      As for gaydar and Gene Anthony Ray, things may have changed a lot since then, but in my experience, when it came to gay identification in pop culture, the black male identity has been so long associated with fear/threat/sexual danger/criminality that, unless a star was as flamboyant as Little Richard or perhaps Antonio Fargas in CAR WASH, rarely were they assumed to be gay.

      Terrific to hear from you again, David, and thanks for sharing your thoughts on this film. I’m glad it wasn’t one of my usual dark-themed movies for a change. Take care!

  12. It's heartening to read your appreciation for this film, and the significant role it played in your life, and you have written an eloquent, intelligent, and sincerely passionate and touching homage to it's important and historical value in the canon of classic Hollywood musicals. However, it never fails to amaze me that the very bedrock of the picture is often overlooked, misunderstood, or often not even commented upon with any amount of deeper recognition or understanding, namely that within the character of "Raul Garcia" lies the screenplay's very dramatic and tortuously thematic heart: Ralph is inarguably a roman a clef, a mirror, a sly and diamond-hard prism into the very real life and ugly death of comedian Freddie Prinze, and uses that explicit template, in the guise of both the idolized and the idolizer,to make some very powerful statements regarding art vs. commerce, the capitalist machinery of Hollywood and the endless and endlessly reoccuring wreckage it both produces and leaves behind, and the serious spiritual, ethical, and moral confrontations, let alone lost illusions, that any gifted and naive adolescent must confront if he is to truly pass through the ring of fire known as the American Dream of Celebrity and still believe him or herself to be an "artist" with his integrity intact, despite what the world defines as a successful human being. In this regard, it is a profoundly serious and socio-political movie, with subtle Faustian and existentialist undertones, and it is those singular philosophical elements, illuminated way beyond the limits of just an "ensemble of new young talent" by an extraordinarily potent (and what should of been Oscar-winning) central performance, an accomplishment which has kept it relevant after all these many years and immune from the taint of dated and forgotten kitsch*

    (*And something that virtually every other iteration and imitation to this very day will never achieve.)

  13. Mr. Anderson, I wish to sincerely thank you for printing my previous comment, but considering it was written in the heat of the moment, I would like to beg you indulgence and permit me to clarify and revise some of the more mucky aspects of what I was trying to express, so please forgive me. To wit: "The character of Ralph is inarguably a roman-a-clef, a mirror, a sly and diamond-hard prism reflecting the very real life and ugly death of comedian Freddie Prinze, (a 22-year old suicide at the height of his career) and it uses that explicit template, in the guise of both the idolizer and the figure being idolized, to make some very powerful statements about the capitalist machinery of Hollywood, the endless and endlessly re-occurring wreckage it produces and leaves behind, and the serious spiritual, ethical, and moral issues, let alone lost illusions, that any gifted and naïve adolescent must confront if he or she is to truly pass through the ring of fire known as The American Dream Of Celebrity and still believe themselves worthy of being an "artist" with their self-respect and integrity intact, despite whether or not the world sees them and defines them as being "successful". In this regard, it is a profoundly astute and critical piece of socio-political filmmaking, with subtle Faustian and existentialist undertones. Those singular philosophical elements were illuminated way beyond the parameters of just an "ensemble of new young talent" by an extraordinarily potent (and what should-of-been Oscar winning) performance that has kept the film relevant after all these many years, immune from the taint of dated and forgotten kitsch, something that virtually every other imitation and iteration has failed to achieve". As a special addition to this revised comment, I would like to add this personal observation. Notice, if you will, that sprinkled throughout the film are strange allusions to many various tragic artists whose genius was blighted and destroyed both from within and without by the grinding mills of social notoriety in one form or another: James Dean, Montgomery Clift, playwright William Inge (author of Montgomery's opening monologue "The Dark At The Top Of The Stairs") Marlon Brando, Stephen Crane (19th-century songwriter of "The Old Folks At Home", the American standard played by Ralph on his harmonica when he first appears trying out for the school) and the poster of Laurence Olivier in the very opening shot of the film, a still from the notorious 1965 British production of "Othello" in which the most towering icon of the modern Shakespearean theater, "the greatest actor of the 20th century" had a massive nervous breakdown on stage, due to his inability to technically achieve any real emotion, night after night, no matter how hard he tried.

    AS you perceptively and gratefully have observed, Mr. Anderson, "Fame", both the title, the film, and the word itself, is not to be taken literally.

  14. Hi
    I'm so pleased you enjoyed this post (thank you!) and I have to return the compliment in saying that your contributed comments make such a good point. The ensemble nature of FAME is wonderful in that it affords each viewer the opportunity to respond to different aspects of the story as well as unearth unnoticed things with each new visit.
    I think your calling attention to the Freddie Prinze parallels in the Ralph Garci story arc is sure to enrich the viewing the experience of anyone who failed to take note.
    Your attentiveness to the themes of FAME and sensitive awareness of their broader implications make for fascinating reading and a very thought provoking contribution to this post.
    Readers always say they learn so much form reading the knowledgeable comments section of my blog. Yours is a good example of why that is. Thank you very much for your very kind and flattering words, and for taking the time to elaborate further on your initial comments. Much appreciated!

  15. Mr. Anderson: Thank you very much for your compliments. They are very kind.

    Yet the embarrassment of it all! My brain must have gone into some sort of phantasmagorical "creative genuises who died young" overdrive, causing me to make a rather bizarre mixture of mistakes regarding my theory about all the cryptic references to tragically damaged lives scattered throughout the film. It was Stephen Foster, not Stephen Crane, who wrote the famous tune that Ralph plays on his harmonica, as I must of somehow been thinking of Hart Crane at the same time, because all three of these figures died tragically young, and led lives of creative greatness that went unfufilled and unrecognized until long after their death. Foster died at 37, alone, sick, and in dire poverty on the Bowery in 1864, while Stephen Crane, the author of "Red Badge Of Courage" and one of the pioneers of hard-hitting urban social realism in literature in the 19th century, died at the age of 28, a true rebel of his time in terms of his writings about the lower classes. Hart Crane, the great experimental poet, died a suicide, at 32. There are even two other "signifiers" that I failed to mention, if you follow my path down the very dark tunnel of "Fame" being more "cautionary tale" rather than "jubliant aria"... the cynical mention of football hero Joe Namath by Ralph in his last moment on screen after bombing in the comedy club, his career future and his priniciples ambigious and unresolved.(Namath being an athlete physically ruined by the very sport that brought him to superstardom) and the mention of James Cagney's classic and iconic line from Raoul Walsh's "White Heat" in Ralph's attempt to get into drama class: "Top Of The World, Ma!" shouted out by Cagney's ruthlessly ambitious criminal as he's incinerated by an explosive and very symbolic ball of fire.
    It's also not insignificant that MGM went through several attempts to change the title of the film, orginally called "Hot Lunch" and forced to scrap it because of a similiarly titled X-rated porno, they suggested awful, tacky stuff like "Starstruck", "Break A Leg", "Razzle Dazzle" and "Neon Dreams", until Alan Parker talked to David Bowie and asked him if he could borrow the title from his 1975 song "Fame", which he chose because of the lyrics:

    "Fame, puts you there where things are hollow.
    Fame, what you get is no tomorrow.
    Fame, what you need you have to borrow.
    Fame, what you like is in the limo.
    Fame, it's not your brain, it's just the flame
    that burns your change, to keep you insane,
    Fame, bully for you, chilly for me,
    got to get a rain check on pain."

    True, it's not "I'm gonna live forever, I'm gonna learn how to fly high". But it's the real song that motivated Parker's final title choice, and therein lies the deeper truth of the director's intent, and what he wished to really communicate to the audience, especially through the central Ralph Garcy story arc.

  16. It's interesting when you think about all of Parker's films...even though the surface elements are radically different (a New York City performing arts high school, a Turkish prison, a bourgeois San Francisco family divorce, a rock star's feverish mental breakdown, an Argentinian social climbing actress turned loved/loathed political messiah) there is a distinct through-line through all of his films, namely his preoccupation with children and young people caught up in and victimized by a hypocritical and oppressive social order, a longing for escape into the worlds of fame and celebrity as a substitute for familial love and finding nothing but further systems of disillusionment, and a general overall world-view of an indifferent and cruel universe that must be reckoned with in terms of existential, rather than institutionally religious, individual self-determinism and psychological well-being.

    1. Thanks for your further comments. I think you make a good point and I agree that any perusal of Parker's films reveals at least a pattern of interests and themes. Especially dealing with youth and the pursuit of fame (which I always thinks just stands in for any difficult to attain dream or desire). His films often play well on repeat viewings, revealing some of the ideas hidden behind his ability tell a story so entertainly.
      I enjoyed reading the ideas you shared.
      I don't always get back to respond to older posts, but I hope you continue to share your thoughts even without reply because I know the readers and visitors to this blog enjoy hearing from other film enthusiasts. Thanks again!

  17. all i can say is that i love irene cara. i have always loved irene cara. what was done to coco in the scene where she's intimidated into talking off her clothes long before #metoo would see the light of day and weinstein would get his just desserts,unfortunately, was done to her by the music business. irene was too special to be used and abused by the music industry.

  18. David HollingsworthJuly 7, 2020 at 9:58 AM

    I don't think I could have said it any better than this about this timeless, amazing film. I don't think it has dated at all. I think it remains a depressing, but really fresh portrait of ambition, heartbreak, and reality that most films now couldn't even touch. I had seen it a few times before several years ago, but recently, I have been thinking/obsessing about it. So much, that I bought it on Blu-ray. I know that the TV series is more family-friendly, but I actually want to see it. I never want to see the 2009 remake, because I know that its a sanitized, Hollywood, overbaked one.

    The cast of the original meant so much to me: Irene Cara as the savvy, but naïve Coco; the late, great Gene Anthony Ray as the beautifully physical, but rebellious Leroy; Maureen Teefy as the sweet, but timid Doris; Barry Miller as the brash, but vulnerable Ralph; Paul McCrane as the closeted, but charming Montgomery; Laura Dean as the directionless, but eclectic Lisa; the amazing Lee Curreri as the soulful, but also charismatic Bruno; and Antonia Francheschi as the self-assured, but also fragile Hilary. These kids felt so real and honest to me.

    The scene where Coco is lured into an audition, where she is coerced into taking off her blouse is one of the most disturbing moments I've ever seen in my life. It's a tough and difficult moment to watch, but Cara is so good in the scene that it is impossible to look away.

    I have a developed a crush on Curreri because he was likable as Bruno, musically gifted, and progressive. All of his scenes with Cara are genuine because the chemistry they had together in the film was very natural. Every time I see those see, I wish I was Cara, because the way he Curreri looks at her, especially when she incredibly performs "On My Own" was so sweet and full of longing. And then he touches her hand. It still gives me chills.

    I still think that it is ahead of its time, and a classic of not only 80's cinema, but pretty much cinema in general.

    1. Hi David
      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and personal feelings for this film that only gets better with each passing year. It's especially heartening that your connection to the film extends over several years and you now get to enjoy it in HD, probably looking even better than it did on first release.
      Your observations highlight how much the film works as a character piece, and how masterfully the script and actors get us to care about such a sizable cast. Each character becoming fully realized under abbreviated circumstances.

      Like you, I think it mostly boils down to honesty. A non-sentimental honesty and approach to the lives of these kids and the perspective of life the director wanted to show. It sounds as though you have yet to see the TV show?
      I hope you enjoy it when you get the chance to check it out. It's not the same as the film, but it doesn't have to be...the TV show has merits of its own.
      Appreciate your reading this post and commenting so thoughtfully and with such genuine affection for FAME. It's a rare film that can engender such reactions. I'm glad this film touched you the way it did. Thanks, David!

  19. David HollingsworthJuly 9, 2020 at 6:27 PM

    I just bought the first two seasons of the TV show, but I can't find the other four. However, I'm excited to watch those I was able to purchase. Thank you for comment.