How 'American Idol' Influenced the 'Fame' Remake

The opening scene of the 1980 movie Fame begins with an aspiring actor delivering a confessional monologue. A gangly, pale kid with pouffy red hair who is struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality and obsessed with his mother, he admits that he always worries people won't like him when he goes to a party.  The fear doesn't seem entirely unfounded. As an actor, he's quite promising. As a person, he's a bit of a mess.

By contrast, none of the characters in the new Fame has probably ever experienced pre-party jitters. The students at New York City’s High School of Performing Arts may resemble the characters in the original film in that some come from difficult backgrounds or suffer setbacks in their quest for success, but that's where the similarities end. Unlike the lonely, angst-ridden wannabe singers and dancers of the 1980 film, this new bunch of aspiring stars is made of wholesome, polite, well-adjusted kids who seem just as capable of selling T shirts at Abercrombie & Fitch if the whole singer/dancer/actor thing doesn’t pan out. The film, more of a homage to the original than faithful remake, retains the 1980 version's sweetness and charm. But it dispenses entirely with the "tortured artist" assumption underlying all the characters' motivations in the first film. And for that we can most likely thank American Idol and the way the show has changed the way we think about what drives people to perform.

Idol is never referenced in the new Fame, but its spirit informs every song and dance number, and every impassioned speech about why a character wants to "make it." Just as contestants on Idol are judged for their likability as much as their technique, the kids in Fame seem driven more by a desire to please their teachers, parents, and each other than a need to exorcise personal demons or express themselves. In the original film, the character of Doris (Maureen Teefy) worries about being too ordinary, lacking the sort of painful formative experiences that can inform her acting. In the new Fame, conversely, Malik (Collins Pennie), the one character who expresses any inner turmoil, is counseled by a teacher to make peace with his past in order to succeed as an actor.

This ethos plays out weekly on the Idol stage, where any struggle (single parenthood, for example) is edited into mini-inspiration segments, with the winnable singers always coming out ahead thanks to their positive outlook on life. Contestants who don’t exude the requisite bubbly wholesomeness usually go home early—Simon Cowell dismisses them with his standard "You're not likable enough" line, and the rest of the country believes him. When, in the original film, the character Coco (Irene Cara) is tricked into taking off her shirt for a sleazy filmmaker, she chalks up the experience as just part of the price she'll pay to pursue her dreams. The outcome was quite different on the second season of Idol, when Frenchie Davis was disqualified from the competition after topless photos of her leaked on the Internet. The new Fame follows Idol's script: when Jenny (Kay Panabaker), an aspiring actress, discovers a successful actor expects sex in exchange for career help, she storms out of his trailer, girl-next-door integrity intact.

Fame costs, as Debbie Allen intoned ominously in the original film (her words open the new version as well). But the quote is a bit inaccurate, since neither film is actually about fame at all (both end with graduations, before we can see if any of the students actually achieves lasting success.) It's talent that comes with a price, the first film suggests—the characters are, at their core, awkward, sad, angry misfits gifted with the ability to channel their pain into creativity. It’s an artistic cliché, sure, and maybe wholly inaccurate, but it does make for good drama. In the new Fame, the kids may work hard in service of their talents, but without any inner conflicts, the stakes seem awfully low. But then again, in a world where all it takes to be famous is a good YouTube video or memorable Idol audition, maybe fame doesn't cost that much anyway.
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