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Fleeting ‘Fame’

In these days of Paris, Perez and paparazzi, fame has become the pop-culture equivalent of the penny. With so much of it lying around, how can it be worth anything?

Which is why the new remake of 1980's "Fame" could have been an entertainment gold mine. What better way to snatch fame from the grubby hands of the Kardashians than with a film about a bunch of fresh-faced kids who live for their art?

Maybe someone will make that film someday. But this "Fame" reboot isn't it.

When the original version was released in May of 1980, the personal and artistic adventures of a bunch of singing and dancing students from New York's High School for the Performing Arts seemed both sweetly old-fashioned and terribly exotic.

With the "Let's put on a show" days of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney long gone, and the "Everyone's a star" days of YouTube and reality TV many moons away, the idea that teenagers could write songs and craft stand-up comedy routines and sacrifice everything for that big break was a stirring and beautiful thing.

Written by the late Christopher Gore (who died in 1988) and directed by Alan Parker (who went on to do "Mississippi Burning," "The Commitments" and "Evita"), the original "Fame" also dealt with the painful, grubby side of show business. Dreams were dashed, youthful ambition was exploited and innocence was lost.

But that was then. What about now? How do you re-imagine "Fame" for a world where Taylor Swift has been cranking out radio hits since she was 17, Disney's "High School Musical" and Fox TV's new "Glee" have turned musical-theater nerds into geek-chic role models, and anyone can be famous for doing pretty much anything?

In the case of the underwhelming new "Fame," the idea seems to do nothing and hope nobody notices.

Using the original as both a template and a crutch, first-time film director Kevin Tancharoen and screenwriter Allison Burnett ("Resurrecting the Champ") have created a remake that brings nothing new to the table and takes away many of the goodies that were already there.

In the kinetic early scenes, it feels like the new "Fame" team might be on to something. Like the '80s version, this one is divided into chapters that mimic performing-arts school life. The first section is devoted to the auditions, in which a cast of many hundreds is whittled down to the lucky members of the new freshman class.

Using extreme close-ups, screenwriting shorthand and jittery camera moves, the audition chapter shows us the drive, dedication and talent a kid needs to make it in a place like this.

And as the aspiring dancers leap and the actors sweat and the percussionists pound away, you can see how the film could make its mark. By emphasizing skill and talent, this remake could reclaim fame for the people who work for it, leaving infamy for the lazy, the crazy and cast of "The Hills."

Then the film moves into the freshman year, and all that promise drifts away. While the original focused on a small handful of characters — including Coco, the ambitious singer played by Irene Cara — the remake gives us a small army of anonymous pretty faces, then does nothing to help us tell the players apart.

Jenny (Kay Panabaker) is an aspiring actress who starts out shy and repressed and stays that way. Denise (Naturi Naughton) is a straight-laced pianist with a gift for R&B singing. Malik (Collins Pennie) is a streetwise kid with a tragic story and a burning desire to act or be a rapper. Marco (Asher Book) is a natural-born performer who grew up singing in his family's restaurant.

There is also a peppy Asian-American girl, a hyperactive kid who wants to be a director, and an aspiring ballet dancer from Iowa who drops his partner during his freshman year, then disappears for the next two-thirds of the film.

As the film moves toward graduation, somebody gets a job on "Sesame Street," somebody else has a close call with the casting couch, and someone you don't really remember will turn out to have a sad lack of talent.

Does any of this impact our students on a personal or artistic level? With only the charismatic Naughton, Pennie and Book getting any real time in the spotlight, we'll never know. Will any of it move audiences? With look-alike characters coming and going in such weird, random ways, probably not.

"Fame! I'm gonna live forever," Cara sang in the original theme song. With new crops of talented young people popping up with each season of "American Idol" and "So You Think You Can Dance," the new "Fame" will be lucky if anyone is still thinking about it next week.

"Fame." Rated: PG. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes. 1.5 stars.

To find out more about Karla Peterson and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.


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