SOME REMAKES stand on their own, reinventing, expanding, and occasionally surpassing their source material. Fame is not one of those remakes. This unasked-for adaptation is so forgettable and insubstantial that it's really only worth discussing in the context of the original.
People make fun of the 1980 musical Fame without having seen it, and unjustly so: For a movie about a bunch of fruity drama kids, it's gritty, honest, and unexpectedly badass. Set in New York City's Performing Arts High School, the original Fame tackles a whole slew of issues, from abortion, religion, and homosexuality to the disappointments and dangers that accompany a desire to be famous. And there's dancing!
The tween friendly remake borrows Fame's structure, following a handful of students over four years of school, but it dumbs down its characters' lives, offering up a bunch of clean-cut wannabe stars with PG-rated problems. It's blandly entertaining, to be sure—watching hot teenagers dance has an appeal whose universality can't (nay, shouldn't) be denied. But there's none of the original's energy, none of the relevance, none of the boundary pushing. Instead of a grey-haired music teacher shouting "It's not your dick you're holding, it's a violin bow!", or a gay kid coming out to his entire school, the biggest conflict here arises when a girl gets dumped by her feather-haired boyfriend.
Despite the meticulously multiracial cast, there's something vanilla about the remake: The sex is gone, the language is cleaned up, and the music is downright cheesy, substituting a generic hiphop score for the pop giddiness of the original. None of the characters are clearly defined: There's a sorta Jew-y filmmaker, a sorta WASP-y ballerina, a sorta angry rapper. Perhaps most disappointingly, there are no openly gay characters. At a performing arts school! And remember that scene in the original where Ralph and Doris go see The Rocky Horror Picture Show? The closest the new film comes to acknowledging the counterculture is name-checking Wes Anderson.
The 1980 film is about finding oneself, finding one's voice, figuring out where one fits into the world. The 2009 remake is about being oneself, as if it's enough to pick up a microphone and spew one's insides all over the stage. It isn't. Conflict and introspection are necessary, in life and in film. It's too bad the (re)makers of Fame didn't realize that.