There's no nudity in this PG-rated version, no one gets an abortion. No one even lights a single cigarette. So no, it's not exactly the most realistic depiction of modern high-school life. But at the same time, dancer and choreographer Kevin Tancharoen, making his feature directing debut, doesn't turn "Fame" into the kind of slick, overly edited eye candy you might expect. It's stylized, yes, and it movies really fluidly while still maintaining some urban grittiness. And in a world where people aspire for instant recognition by making idiots of themselves on reality TV, there's still something appealing about the idea of working hard for artistic glory - potentially failing and suffering rejection, but persevering nonetheless. Starting with Debbie Allen's famous "you got big dreams, you want fame" speech over the opening titles, "Fame" follows a group of aspiring singers, dancers, actors and musicians from their auditions for New York's competitive High School of Performing Arts until their graduation four years later. Among the familiar types are Denise (Naturi Naughton), a classically trained pianist who longs to branch out creatively; good-looking Marco (Asher Book), who sings like Justin Timberlake; aspiring actress Jenny (Kay Panabaker), who's too self-conscious; the privileged dancer Alice (Kherington Payne); the shticky wannabe film director Neil (Paul Iacono); and the misunderstood actor-rapper Mailk (Collins Pennie). Among the faculty are Kelsey Grammer as the stern but fair piano teacher and Bebe Neuwirth, formidable as always, as a dance instructor. (Frasier and Lilith don't have any scenes together, sadly.) Megan Mullally plays a perky voice coach and Allen herself, in all of two scenes, appears as the school's principal. Some of these kids are obviously going to make it - they're going to live forever, as the song goes - and some aren't. It's pretty easy to figure out. Similarly, you can see some of the plot developments coming from a mile away in Allison Burnett's script, even if you've never seen the original. You just know that the moment Denise's strict parents see her on stage, singing in a way they never knew she could, they'll achieve a newfound appreciation for her talent. Naughton, who played Lil' Kim in "Notorious," also sings the hell out of "Out Here on My Own," the only song carried over from the original. ("Fame" plays over the closing credits.) And understandably, given Tancharoen's background, the dance scenes dazzle.
The mousey Jenny will flourish by senior year, the keyboard player who hates Bach will learn to enjoy classical music, and at some point they'll all burst into spontaneous song and dance in the cafeteria. These are inescapable truisms.
Familiar? Yes, but not nearly as vapid as most of the musical material out there that encourages teens to believe fame is all that matters.
"Fame," an MGM release, is rated PG for thematic material including teen drinking, a sexual situation and language. Running time: 107 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.