Why ‘Fame’ is the definitive performance film

Why ‘Fame’ is the definitive performance film

Ellis Graham

  • OnStage Australia Columnist

Before anyone panics, this article is NOT about the 2009 remake. Today, we’re going to hark back to Alan Parker’s 1980 drama about the lives of various students at New York’s prestigious High School of Performing Arts.

I make a point to refer to ‘Fame’ as a ‘performance’ film, not a musical. Despite having a successful stage run on the West End in 1995, the film version ‘Fame’ contains nine songs, the majority of which are instrumental. The ‘musical’ aspect of the film comes from the classes the students undertake – dance, singing, music and drama.

‘Fame’ is not a story about the famous. It’s not even a story about the talented. It’s a story of a group of nobodies who want to be somebodies. Nobodies who, through hard work or – in some cases – parental intervention, have wrangled a place at one of the most sought-after arts schools in America. These nobodies work tirelessly at their crafts, perfecting every turn, memorising lines, striving to hit all the right notes, all in hope that one day they’ll emerge from the school with ‘star’ written all over them. And as an audience, you want these kids to succeed. You see them push themselves above and beyond what is required of them. You follow them through their successes and failures, and you want them to come out on top. 

What separates ‘Fame’ from other films about performance is that there isn’t one definitive ‘happily ever after.’ The film concludes on a somewhat ambiguous note – we never find out whether the kids actually achieve their goals. Rather, we see them towards the end of graduation, and that’s that. We are left to decide for ourselves whether or not they joined the 10% (or so) of graduates who were actually able to make a living in their chosen creative outlet. 

For anyone who has ever considered a career in in the arts, in or out of the spotlight, ‘Fame’ is a film that will strike a chord. Parker doesn’t sugar-coat the subject matter, and anyone who has ever been actively involved in some area of the arts will recognise the struggles the students face, such as working for free, working in abysmal conditions, or even – in some cases – not working at all. 

But, despite its sobering message, ‘Fame’ is not a sad film. It does not encourage its viewers to avoid an artistic career, even though there are so many risks attached. Rather, it sends the message of hope. Sure, there’s a chance you won’t get what you want. You might never be famous. You might never get the chance to become an actor/dancer/musician/ [insert other creative career here]. 

But you know what? There’s also a chance – however small – that you might get everything you ever dreamed of.

There is a reason why I consider ‘Fame’ to be the best film ever made about the performing arts. It is not because it is gritty and unflinching. It is not because its characters are raw and real. What makes ‘Fame’ so enduring is its reassurance that, though one might not always achieve their goals, there is no shame in trying. It shows its viewers the nitty-gritty side of a creative career, whilst simultaneously motivating them to see the positive side of artistic education. Parker himself noted that ‘Fame’ is a film about the ultimate American dream – the chance at instant, long-lasting success, all backlit by the Great White Way. It is the undertone of failure throughout the film that keeps it realistic, yet it is the electrifying overtones of ‘living forever’ that keep audiences coming back. 

So if you want a film that centres around the ups and downs of show-business, warts and all, then ‘Fame’ is definitely one to check out. As films about the arts go, this really is one that will live forever.

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