The James Clayton Column: Dance films to fill in the gaps

With Alan Parker's musical being remade, James wonders if we should catch up with some other old musical favourites...

Topping the list of ‘Potentially Disturbing Films Scheduled to be Released Soon’, I’d say that few pose a serious challenge to Fame. Due to dramatically leap onto cinema screens next month, I can see a number of reasons why the remake/update of the 1980 performing arts school movie would cause distress.

For some, the arrival of an all-singing, all-dancing event in an age where we’re inundated with competitive reality TV ‘talent’ shows is cause for angst. In contrast, die-hard dance nuts who adore Alan Parker’s original may worry that the new Fame film will be a soul-destroying, cynical stain on the legacy.

Personally, I fear that the update will promote the same sort of anarchy encouraged in the old Fame. Don’t say I didn’t warn you when leg warmer-wearing radicals are obliterating all order and bringing cities to a standstill in beatbox-backed wildcat strikes.

Whether this Fame reboot will contain such traffic-stopping set-pieces and scenes of pumped-up performers cathartically creating civic disorder I can’t be sure. Nevertheless, what I do know is that the film follows in the footsteps of its predecessor and focuses on the dramas of New York High School for Performing Arts.

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Just like the 1980 cult musical, it’s going to be concerned with the trials, tribulations and talents of students striving to achieve their dreams in a testing academic atmosphere. Basically, it’s high school movie material with tights and artistic temperaments.

At first, the idea of a cinematic return to the dance studio may not inspire optimism, but I can see why giving Fame a fresh lease of life is considered worthwhile. There’s a market out there for motivational musical movies and the sub-genre has been running pretty strong in recent times as dance fans have lapped up flicks like Honey, Save the Last Dance and Take The Lead. As spoof treatment in the form of Dance Flick threatens to disrupt the flow, dropping the definitive dance drama back into popular consciousness is the affirmative way to keep momentum going.

It’s also true that times have changed and that the old-school disco rhythms and late ‘70s sportswear look dated, so a fresh injection of 21st street style and a soundtrack of contemporary urban sounds is a justifiable must for the leading light in the ‘performing arts students’ genre.

Furthermore, people never tire of the age-old “I believe I can reach the stars!” American Dream plot and as a timeless tale of artistic aspiration Fame‘s themes are relevant even if the fashions are not.

The remake also presents an opportunity to test some of the theme tune’s bold claims. The assertion that “I’m gonna live forever” is holding strong with the remake in the can and ready to distribute worldwide, but the boast that “people will see me and die” has failed to come true as far as I’m aware (unless there’s a student who graduated as a gorgon).

Ditto, “I’m gonna learn how to fly” unless one of the school’s pupils suddenly mutated or rapidly evolved and sprouted wings. Is this musical tribute to ruthless ambition meant to be taken literally? Are parents being persuaded to send their gifted offspring to the place on the strength of these gross exaggerations?

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Admittedly, I know nothing about Fame beyond the fact that it featured a guy called Leroy who wore little red panties, so I may be ignorant of answers that were offered up to the audience in the spin-off TV show.

Still the series was cancelled in 1987 so there’s a gap of over 20 years in which all kinds of incredible events could have taken place. “What became of the Fame kids?” you may be asking. Did any of the school’s students succeed in their showbiz dreams? What about the ones who didn’t? Did Leroy ever get decent underwear? We’ll never know, unless someone comes in to join the dots and cast light on the undocumented period.

It’s most likely that Fame 2009 won’t chronicle the fates of all those who ‘paid in sweat’ back in the ‘80s, but I reckon there’s room here for such retrospective edification and I’d urge fresh takes on old dance flicks to do it.

Cinematic narratives don’t just end once the credits arrive and quite often questions remain within the minds of viewers. Personally, as a curious person, I’d be intrigued to see more ‘update’ films fill in the missing details and tell us what has happened in the interval.

What happened to “Fast Eddie” Felson after climax of The Hustler? Thanks to Martin Scorsese’s The Color Of Money you can find out: over 25 years later Paul Newman’s pool shark took on Tom Cruise as a protégé and passed the cue on to the next generation.

Speaking of Scorsese, every so often rumours of a Taxi Driver follow-up surfaces, suggesting that audiences could come to see an elderly Travis Bickle and truly see what happened after the original’s ambiguous ending. I’d say, whether you like them or not, sequels like Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, Rocky Balboa (a.k.a. Rocky VI) and Rambo (a.k.a Rambo IV) were great because they cast light over the dark uncertainty surrounding the much-loved eponymous heroes.

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Though I like musicals, I’m not a dance movie devotee so a film expanding Taxi Driver lore has more appeal than the new Fame flick. That said though, I’d eagerly anticipate revelatory fresh spins on the classics of the genre if they promised to clear up the questions that haven’t satisfactorily been answered.

Quite often I find myself unconvinced by the resolution of movies like Flashdance and Dirty Dancing. You’re telling me that the transition from welder and part-time erotic dancer to posh conservatory was problem-free? “Nobody puts Baby in the corner” Patrick Swayze says, but did the Housemans accept that Baby had grown up? Did her summer holiday romance with the dance instructor last?

Ultimately, Grease is the cult musical that truly requires an urgent explanatory update. Did the echoing refrain of “we’ll always be together” ring true after graduation, or did the T-Birds and Pink Ladies dive-bomb into disastrous lives of disharmony and despair?

After so little academic effort, did they find themselves waiting tables at the Frosty Palace fast food joint? No longer held back by high school (looking at them, you can tell they’d been held back. One of them looks about 40), how did those greasers cope in the real world? To quote one of their songs, “Tell me more! Tell me more!” 

James’ previous column can be found here.