Musical 52

Watch 52 musicals, one every week, in 2015.

FAME (1980)

Fame! I’m gonna fame forever! I’m gonna learn how to fame! FAME! It’s Fame, the movie about the kids from Fame. You see, the kids from Fame all go to a performing arts high school in New York City hoping to become the superstars of tomorrow, through singing, dancing, acting, musicking, or whatever the hell else they think might be a worthwhile skill of monetary value. Will this diverse group of talented youngsters ever obtain the one thing they want more than anything else in the whole wide world… renown? Or will they all burn to death in a shoe factory? Not sure why anyone would guess that second option, but let’s find out!

Fame basically takes place in a Hogwarts for band geeks and theater kids, but whereas each Harry Potter movie covers three kids from one summer vacation to the next, this flick crams all four years of schooling into two hours and follows the intersecting lives of a shitload of students. Reason would suggest this is a terrible recipe for a coherent story, but surprisingly, Fame pulls it off, and all the characters’ complexities intertwine in a frantic way that only adds to the experience of being a motivated but hormone-addled teenager.

Good luck in that sea of ambition and boners.

The film does a great job of exploring what drove these kids to the arts in the first place, but not necessarily revealing them all at the same time. And they handle the tension of studying and practicing in different and often unpredictable ways, and goddamn, did this movie top The Avengers for juggling character arcs? I think it did.

Performers, assemble!

Also, I didn’t expect Fame to be quite so dark. While it’s no Whiplash or The King of Comedy, yikes, striving for superstardom is simultaneously inspiring and rough as fuck. I mean, the title alone probably should have tipped me off that this was going to feature a chorus line of painful struggles; what exploration of the idea of fame isn’t a quagmire of misery and soul-selling? Still, I went in picturing The Happy Singing Funtime Kids and that is not the movie I got at all.

And by that I mean I actually enjoyed it.

I’m gonna jump the gun a bit and say that if you haven’t seen Fame, I recommend it. Get that done before I spend the rest of this article telling you how everybody dies in a horrible industrial accident. I don’t know why I’d tell you that, because it doesn’t happen, but it’s more fun than saying “spoiler alert” for a 35-year-old movie. So check it out and appreciate a story well told.

There are, like, ten thousand kids in this movie, so I can’t talk about all of them, but many of them are very fine actors indeed! See, when a movie is well-written and contains unique and complex characters, the actors can focus on how to bring them to life! Neat how that works, huh? Anyway, here are some of my favorite performances, apologies that I don’t have the space for every one.

First up, Gene Anthony as Leroy Johnson. Leroy wasn’t even trying to audition, he just showed up as a dance partner for Carol Massenburg (who also kicks ass with her very short and very pissed-off performance) and the faculty just had to have him. Problem is, Leroy is homeless and can barely read, which leads to him clashing with his English teacher. Anthony packs a lot into his character: ego, despair, warmth, rage, and enough smoothness to last for days.


Barry Miller takes on the difficult role of asshole comedian wannabe Ralph Garci, who spends most of the movie being a wisecracking dickhead that claims he just wants to make people laugh. Miller does a great job of making you hate the guy while still feeling sorry for him when you learn about his home life and his reasons for going into comedy… but never in a way that fully excuses his behavior.

Fame Ralph

Should any person look that bitter at 18?

Maureen Teefy has the best name and so does her character, Doris Finsecker, whose overbearing mother (played as irritatingly as possible by Tresa Hughes) has pushed her into a tiny ball of anxiety and repression that spends her entire education searching for an identity of her own. Nice work, Teefs.

Hope it wasn’t based on real life.

Hey, remember the guy that gets toxic-waste-splatted in RoboCop? He’s in Fame as a gay kid! Paul McCrane plays the closeted Montgomery MacNeil, who eventually comes out to mixed reactions. It’s an understated performance that conveys just how much courage and uncertainty are dredged up with telling the truth.

Theater kids: notoriously unaccepting.

The good thing about such a diverse cast is that you’re practically guaranteed to see yourself as at least one of the characters… which is why I latched onto synthesizer nerd Bruno Martelli, played by Lee Curreri. He’s the precursor to Gene from Bob’s Burgers, which is another way of saying he’s me: he’s obsessed with electronic music and doesn’t see the point of playing live and argues that Mozart would have been a programmer if he was born today. If you find his obsession with what the ’80s called the future of music a little outdated, well, then I guess I am too. Wait, I was talking about acting, wasn’t I? Good job playing the sensitive shut-in, Curreri.

Fame Synth Kid

You had me at “sawtooth.”

Also there are some rival dancers that want to bone Leroy…

Thumbs up, Antonia Franceschi and Irene Cara!

…and several other students and a few over-the-top teachers and everybody’s just really great! Next section!

I’ve been dancing around this subject (ha!) for the whole article, but I have a question that’s pretty damn important to the premise of this column: is Fame actually a musical? Wikipedia says so. IMDb says no (“musical” isn’t among any of the 102 plot keywords). But wait, the 2009 remake of Fame is called “an updated version of the 1980 musical.” What’s your deal, IMDb? And why am I so curious as to whether this counts? For starters, our first actual “everybody sings and dances together” number is almost 30 minutes into the film, and it’s just the kids dicking around in the cafeteria to the “Hot Lunch Jam.”

They all collapsed in their actual dance classes from low blood sugar.

It’s a groovy tune, but it has fuck all to do with the plot. At least the second song and title track, “Fame,” actually deals with the students’ hopes and dreams of greatness, and yet… it’s a cassette tape. Seriously, Bruno’s dad blasts it from his cab (Bruno recorded it but never shared it with anyone), and the kids just kind of run into the street and bust a move. Nobody even sings. And it’s an hour in. And characters talk over it. This is the title song.

And this is the lack of choreography that goes with it.

At this point I decided that if songs played off of tapes qualify, I guess Leroy’s dance to “Red Light” at the beginning makes the list. So here’s that again.

Fame Leroy

Ladies… again…

My viewing criteria in serious jeopardy, I’m now willing to allow a spontaneous rendition of “Singin’ in the Rain”…

Fame Rain

Shamelessly stolen from that musical that shamelessly stole it from another musical.

…and also “The Time Warp,” which is quite literally just our characters dancing at a Rocky Horror Picture Show screening.


Flag on the play! Musical within a musical!

Luckily, the remaining three songs, while all performed on instruments rather than by some invisible orchestra, do at least tie in to the story, so this movie counts as a musical the same way The Broadway Melody or The Great Ziegfeld count. Coco (Irene Cara’s character) performs the heartbroken ballad “Out Here on my Own” at a piano for Bruno after she loses Leroy to a rival dancer, but Bruno falls in love with her as she sings, and if that’s not how you do a musical, I don’t know what is.

Fame On Own

Count it. I need this.

Later, Montgomery dejectedly sings “Is It Okay If I Call You Mine?” all alone in his room with a guitar. Is he just rehearsing? Or is he referring to someone he’s crushing on? In this case, the ambiguity actually helps the scene.

Fame Mine

Schrödinger’s musical.

And then the big finish on this definitely-a-musical-probably musical is “I Sing the Body Electric,” the final project of all the students that incorporates each of their talents, except acting and comedy, because fuck those disciplines. It’s exactly the sort of sprawling space poetry you’d expect Kraftwerkian weirdo Bruno to compose, but it contains the line “we will all be stars,” which becomes darkly enigmatic when juxtaposed with the events that precede this finale.

And is rendered entirely false when they all die in that shoe factory.

Honestly, while “I Sing the Body Electric” has some wacky sci-fi hippie gibberish in it, no one lyric in the entire movie jumped out at me as being jarringly crappy. However, two different friends that haven’t even seen Fame mocked the same line from the title song when I told them I’d be watching it soon, so fuck it, explain what this is doing in a musical about a performing arts school rather than an aviation academy…

“I’m gonna learn how to fly…”

I wouldn’t say Fame is anywhere close to my favorite musical, mostly because I don’t think it’s a musical we’re all in agreement that it’s definitely a musical, but as a film, it’s spectacular. It captures the mood of being a teen with potential and all the ways that can get fucked up, and it does it with solid writing, great performances, and… passable music that sometimes feels like an afterthought, but hey, uh, the editing’s good, too. I’m thoroughly glad I watched it and I can’t recommend it enough, and now I’m going to go wonder how I only got as far in life as writing a movie blog that nobody reads. Fame! I’m gonna live forever! Unless there’s a fire in a shoe factory!

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982)