There is no simpler way to entertain an audience than to let us in on auditions; we just love to watch the cream rise to the top. I'd have been pleased if Fame, the updated version of the 1980s hit movie about a New York high school for the performing arts that spawned the long-running television series, had just been one long string of good, bad and ugly auditions. Anything to prolong the pleasure of watching disapproval spread like an ink stain across the face of Lynn Kraft, the dance teacher played by Bebe Neuwirth, as she spies another inadequate jeté.
The movie opens with dozens of kids trying out for spots in the freshman class at Performing Arts (the real school it is based on is named Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and the Perfoming Arts, but that's a mouthful). Because they are mostly unfamiliar faces we can't tell who is going to make it, and it's good fun trying to pick the winners although the boy who shimmied his hips through "All That Jazz" was robbed. The school's motto, as delivered by Debbie Allen, in the role of Principal Simms no word on what happened to Lydia Grant is dedication to the craft. "We don't care about your head shot," she admonishes the incoming freshmen. "Or your dreams of being in OK magazine."
I appreciated Principal Simms laying down the law, thereby letting us know that this Fame would be a direct descendant of the original, rather than something more in tune with what the pursuit of youthful fame actually looks like in 2009, i.e., aspiring to be the next Miley Cyrus, or playing the kind of miniature version of despicable grown-ups you see on Gossip Girl or, worst of all, starring in a reality show. The kids in this Fame are sexy, cool, smart and wholesome; they may mislead their parents into thinking they are dutifully honing their classical music skills rather than singing hip hop, but they're good kids.
Moreover, the talents they're supposed to have match the skills they actually do have, also in keeping with both 1980s versions of Fame. Take the school's best dancer, Alice, played by Kherington Payne, who was a contestant on So You Think You Can Dance and has enormous, slinky appeal. You're just starting to see her as the perfect girl to cast in the remake of Flashdance (how far away can that be?) when you realize that Payne's acting talents stop with her smile. But she can sure dance.
Marco, played by Asher Book, has the dopey grin of Andrew Shue and sings like a dream. Denise (Naturi Naughton, a petite Jennifer Hudson type) is the classical pianist with the urge to sing when she does so the first time in the movie, her eyes well up with tears and the preview audience burst into applause but her uptight parents want her to walk the straight and narrow. They, by the way, are referred to in the cast credit's only as Denise's Mother and Denise's Father, which is exactly the way you want parents dealt with in a movie like this.
Other notables include Malik (Collins Pennie), who broods, and sweet Jenny (Kay Panabaker), who looks as though she just wandered in from the set of a Jane Austen movie. Both of them are studying acting with Alvin Dowd (Charles S. Dutton), equal parts teddy bear and therapist. "This is the theater, Malik," Mr. Dowd says, interrupting a passionate monologue, in which Malik is overacting even more than Pennie. "Not the street." It's such a cheesy line, but Dutton delivers it gently enough that you want to run away to Manhattan and perch at his knee.
As the avuncular piano teacher Joel Cranston, Kelsey Grammer is just right: he cocks his head and gives fond smiles to the good students and occasional exasperated lectures to the more challenging ones, like Victor (Walter Perez), who thinks Bach is lame. More of a surprise is Megan Mullally, who finally sheds her Will & Grace persona with the character of voice teacher Fran Rowan. In one of the most compelling scenes in the film, she takes her kids out to sing karaoke, wows them with her own skills, and then tries to explain why she never "made it." Ms. Rowan's self-confident shell falls away and you see the kids absorbing the fact that all the promise in the world can be worn down by the grind of just trying to be noticed. It's a nice dose of reality in a slick, prettily photographed, highly produced cinematic world.
The movie's main flaw is its brisk pacing, which limits how much we engage with the cast. Parents always complain that their kids grow up too fast; well, these kids are in and out of this four-year program in under two hours. Why not have more faith in what could have been a fresh franchise? Start this group off as freshmen and keep them that way for the duration of the film? Then you've got Fame 2, and maybe in Fame 3 we'd get to see Frasier and Lilith reunite, and bingo: first-time feature director Kevin Tancharoen, making his crossover from the world of choreography, has a whole new career. As it is, the years whip by far too quickly. "Already?" the woman behind me said plaintively when the words "Sophomore Year" flashed up on the screen. That's the joy of this Fame. Like the old ones, it convinces you that high school, if not life, should go on forever.