Friday, April 30, 2010

Review: Fame the Musical


Wrote William James on perspectivism: “We are practical beings, each of us with limited functions and duties to perform. Each is bound to feel intensely the importance of his own duties and the significance of the situations that call these forth. But this feeling is in each of us a vital secret, for sympathy with which we vainly look to others. The others are too much absorbed in their own vital secrets to take an interest in ours. Hence the stupidity and injustice of our opinions, so far as they deal with the significance of alien lives. Hence the falsity of our judgments, so far as they presume to decide in an absolute way on the value of other persons' conditions or ideals.”

Perspectivism as a philosophical tradition has a history way back to Xenophanes and is a fancy-pants way of suggesting that you may say “tomato” and I may say “tom-ah-to” and we can both be right. Anti-perspectivists might claim that if you go on to say “potato” and I respond with “po-tah-to” then you have every right to say “po-tah-to isn't a word, fool” and to assert that I have committed some kind of error here. Personally, in this situation, I'd be more concerned about my undiagnosed echolalia combined with an inability to pronounce the names of foodstuffs correctly.

In any case, all of this is one method of explaining why I can say “awkward misfire of a production” while you say “delightful musical romp” and we can both be describing the same thing. The thing in this case is Fame the Musical.

When I read the results of a recent poll on the Australian Ballet's blog I could only respond: wha? The survey asked readers to vote for their favourite dance movie, and Fame didn't even make the list. Centre Stage scores the number one position and that makes sense since most readers of the AB blog will be fans of ballet and CS is like The Godfather with tutus.

It's the omissions that are so buggy weird. Where's the most popular dance film in history, Saturday Night Fever? Or Save the Last Dance, a pretty average flick that nevertheless remains the third highest grossing dance film of all time after Saturday Night Fever and Flashdance. Even the superlative Step Up 2 The Streets comes in at number 10 on that list. Centre Stage is way down at 27.
At least there's no mention of Make It Happen, which should be scrupulously avoided by any fan of film, dance or some combination thereof. I can recommend it to tax agents, however, as it does contain several thrilling scenes of accounting (in fact I'd say the ratio of raunchy dance routines to bookkeeping sequences is about one to one).

The dance movie has emerged to become a serious subgenre in contemporary cinema and the last decade saw a huge surge in their popularity. These movies do tend to suggest a certain laziness in aesthetic sensibility. Bob Fosse once posited that the non-realist injection of song and dance in musicals can be justified in expressionist terms: “The time to sing is when your emotional level is too high to just speak anymore, and the time to dance is when your emotions are just too strong to only sing about how you feel.” Dance movies of the past few decades have found a simpler solution: the time to dance is when you're in a dance school! Or other venue socially appropriate for dancing! It's like Hollywood has cunningly continued the bad work of the villain in Footloose in making us understand that dancing in the streets is as unacceptable as singin' in the rain.

(This is where Step Up 2 The Streets once again proves itself the maverick by presenting a vision of dancing as a kind of corporeal graffiti for the reclamation of “public” spaces which are in actuality under the control of a tight system of social surveillance and control. It's like Foucault scripted the frickin thing.)

Where does this leave Fame – The Musical? Well, there's a sequence in the Melbourne production that quotes the spectacular final dance of Step Up 2 The Streets, with a phrase that will be instantly familiar to anyone who's seen the film. For all I know that bit might itself be a reference to another routine (Step Up 2 The Streets is entirely pastiche, after all). But when this bit turns up in Fame, all I could think of was how much more I would rather be watching Step Up 2 The Streets at that very point in my life. Or is that obvious by now?

The production itself isn't the real culprit here since, apart from some abortive attempts to update the thing with a massive digital backdrop (it's 1984, people!) and some very 21st century hip-hop beats, all fault lies with the original musical itself. Dating back to 1988 and possibly a cynical cash-in on the popularity of the film and subsequent TV series, it embarrassingly apes the original while pretending to be something new. In most cases it's a pale imitation.

The most winceable example of the musical's cheap renovation of the film can be seen in the subplot which leads to the rousing climactic number. In the original it's “I Sing the Body Electric,” a piece inspired by a Walt Whitman poem and containing lyrics such as “I glory in the glow of rebirth/Creating my own tomorrow/When I shall embody the earth.” It's not a patch on Walt's lyricism but it's sublime compared to the musical's leaden equivalent: “Bring on Tomorrow”. “Bring on tomorrow/Let it shine/Like the sun coming up on a beautiful day/It's yours and mine”.

When the musical isn't being obvious it's being downright nonsensical. There's a pretty lengthy song about a guy's inability to control his erections. Why am I watching this? Can't we keep erectile anxiety where God intended it, ie high school change rooms and high street billboards? It might sound exciting but there's little to get the blood really pumping here. There is a fire extinguisher upstage with the word FIRE glaring out angrily at the audience but I thought this was meant to be ironic since fire was exactly what was lacking.

The cast put in spirited and at times impressive performances but I'd like to see them in something more worthy of their efforts, rather than what could be considered a somewhat cynical cash-in on So You Think You Can Dance through the restaging of what was itself a somewhat cynical cash-in. I will remember this musical's name but not for the right reasons.

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