Blu-ray Review HTF Blu-ray Review: FAME (1980)

Discussion in 'Blu-ray and UHD' started by Michael Reuben, Jan 23, 2010.

  1. Michael Reuben

    Michael Reuben Studio Mogul

    Feb 12, 1998
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    Fame (1980) (Blu-ray)


    Studio: Warner

    Rated: R

    Film Length: 134 minutes

    Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

    HD Encoding: 1080p

    HD Codec: VC-1

    Audio: English Dolby TrueHD 5.1; English DD 5.1 (compatibility track); English DD 2.0; French, Spanish, German DD 2.0; Italian DD 1.0

    Subtitles: English SDH; French; German SDH; Italian; Italian SDH; Spanish; Bahasa; Chinese; Korean

    MSRP: $28.99

    Disc Format: 1 50GB + 1 CD

    Package: Keepcase

    Theatrical Release Date: May 16, 1980

    Blu-ray Release Date: Jan. 26, 2010




    Fame is both a historical artifact and a timeless tale. It takes place in a world that we instantly recognize as the past, but it conveys the familiar story of wanting to make it in show biz with an urgency that makes the film feel as vital as when it was made. The High School of Performing Arts (or “PA”) may no longer exist, and the kids who might attend it today would trade clips on YouTube, learn their lines from podcasts and compose music on Macs they could carry on the subway instead of weighing down a taxi – but the yearning hasn’t changed. Nor has the naive faith in oneself that inspires people to keep trying against the daunting odds that face them.




    The Feature:


    Fame originated from the same era as A Chorus Line, but where that famous musical used the dramatic device of a single audition to assemble a crew of aspiring performers, Fame works on a broader canvas. It follows an entire class through four years at PA, from audition through graduation. The film is like a series of yearbooks, with snapshots from each year. We see the same faces, and we watch some of them grow up, but the film isn’t the story of any one individual. It’s more about the road they’re traveling.


    The film begins with auditions, because PA, though part of the public school system, has many more applicants than openings. In a briskly edited sequence, we are introduced to an array of hopefuls, some with obvious talent, some clearly with none. (Included among them is future fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, who did indeed attend PA.) Gradually the film narrows in on the smaller group of students who will become its regular points of reference.


    Bruno Martelli (Lee Curreri) is a musician and a composer, whose cab driver dad couldn’t be prouder. Bruno has one of the film’s most dated predicaments, because the synthesizers that require several people to lug them into PA’s classrooms are antiques by today’s standards, and no contemporary instructor would object to their use in the classroom the way PA’s music teacher Mr. Shorofsky does, though I’m sure students and teachers still find things to argue about. (Mr. Shorofsky is played by the late Albert Hague, who will always have an honored place in American popular culture for having composed the music to “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”.)


    Coco (Irene Cara) is an aspiring singer and a hustler who will spend four years trying to get Bruno to write her songs and join her in gigs. But under all the bluff, she’s an inexperienced kid who’s embarrassed about being poor. (Cara, as the singer of the film’s title song and several other hits from the soundtrack, would also become the main face of Fame.)


    Montgomery McNeill (Paul McCrane) is the son of a famous actress he never sees. He lives in an apartment above Times Square just a few blocks from PA, which might as well be his home. Reserved and sexually confused, he is the observer of the film, the one who often sees what is happening when others don’t but doesn’t know what to do about it.


    Doris Finsecker (Maureen Teefy) is a Brooklyn girl with a monster of a stage mother (Tresa Hughes). Doris’ singing brings tears to her mother’s eyes, but more than anything else, Doris want to be free to discover who she is.


    Ralph Garcy (a/k/a Raul Garcia) is a Puerto Rican kid from the South Bronx, whose non-stop stream of bravado, attitude and fabrications are an obvious cover for . . . something. With a bully’s unerring instinct for the vulnerable, Ralph immediately targets both Doris and Montgomery, but the relationships grow more complicated as both life and their education at PA pull them all in new directions.


    Lisa Monroe (Laura Dean) is an aspiring dancer. It’s all she’s ever wanted to do. The problem is that the school’s dance instructor, Miss Berg (Joanna Merlin), doesn’t think she’s good enough, and their conflict escalates as school progresses.


    Leroy Johnson (Gene Anthony Ray) didn’t even apply to PA but just showed up to help a friend with her dance audition. She’s terrible and is rejected, while Leroy is a such a natural dancer (and catnip to every woman in the room) that the school grabs him. Secretly grateful for the opportunity, Leroy will spend the next four years hiding his shame at his complete lack of primary education, which is almost impossible for him to do when confronted by the English teacher, Mrs. Sherwood, who refuses to let him off the hook. (Mrs. Sherwood is played, with blazing passion, by Anne Meara. At the time she was famous as the female half of the comedy team of Stiller and Meara, but today she’s best known as Ben Stiller’s mom.)


    During the course of the year, another student will join the class at PA: Hilary van Doren (Antonia Franceschi), a spoiled Park Avenue girl who seems to live only for two things: ballet and annoying the stepmother she despises (Holland Taylor in an uncredited cameo). The daughter of a dancer who died young, Hilary is genuinely talented, and PA is clearly just a stopover for her on the route she’s mapped out to stardom. It’s a route she lays out in detail during a memorable and emotional scene (with a twist).


    For the next two hours, the film drops in and out of the lives of these teenagers as they proceed toward graduation. There’s no attempt to inhabit or resolve any single story, and for that reason some viewers may be disappointed. (One of my reviewer colleagues went so far as to pronounce the film “dramatically pretty much a mess”.) But the film lets you know early on that Fame isn’t a story about “making it” in show business when, on the first day of freshman year, the drama teacher, Mr. Farrell (Jim Moody), gives his class a tough lecture about how few actors actually manage to support themselves acting. Then we meet Michael (Boyd Gaines), the star of the graduating class, whom Doris idolizes as he heads off to Hollywood glowing with offers, promise and potential. Later in the film, Michael reappears, and he’s the very opposite of a star. Michael’s is the future that awaits most of the kids at PA, including those who get most of Fame’s screen time.


    The dramatic arc of Fame – and it’s one that director Alan Parker and his long-time editor, Gerry Hambling, work hard to build – doesn’t depend on the coming-of-age of any single character. The characters are just the current embodiment of a larger force prowling the halls of an institution like PA: the overwhelming desire to express oneself, make one’s mark on the world and (in the words of the Walt Whitman-inspired climactic song) “burn with the fire of ten million stars”. It’s a force that builds industries – where would American Idol be without it? – but it requires constant feeding, and the dark undercurrent running throughout Fame is the knowledge that each of the characters we get to know is probably just so much cannon fodder for the show biz machine. The film takes you through their graduation, but it leaves you with no illusions about what’s likely to happen afterwards. Parker is too much of a moralist for fairy-tale endings.


    What he does provide, though, is a constant sense that the striving is worth it, even when individuals fall by the wayside. This is where the music of Fame is critical. The Fame soundtrack by Michael Gore (and various collaborators) was more successful than the film itself. It’s infectious, memorable and effectively embodies the film’s true protagonist, which is that hungry beast who keeps disappearing around the corners of PA’s corridors, just out of reach of the film’s individual characters. For a brief moment during the film’s finale, when all of them are playing and singing and dancing in unison, you can just catch a glimpse of the powerful spirit they’ve all been chasing. Then it’s gone, and the credits role.





    Warner has provided a superb Blu-ray version of Fame that fully exploits the medium’s ability to present the subtleties of great cinematography (here, the work of Michael Seresin, who is Parker’s frequent collaborator and also photographed the third Harry Potter film for Alfonso Cuarón). Fame was shot entirely on location; even the sets were built in abandoned New York schools. The grit, decay and urban decrepitude of a city that had just recently avoided collapse and bankruptcy are evident in every street, wall and frayed interior. Yet Seresin lights scene after scene with a kind of theatrical glow that reflects how the students at PA see the world: as a place that always holds the possibility of a grand future, even when it’s scary. The transfer on the Blu-ray is so detailed and so good at delineating fine shades of color that you get the full impact of both the grime and the golden light that often romanticizes it.






    As has already been noted by Robert Harris, the overall volume level of the TrueHD track is somewhat low. However, the track has good fidelity, which is especially evident in the musical numbers. I believe the low volume results from an effort to balance the music, which was studio-produced, with the dialogue, which sounds like it relies heavily on production tracks. Turning up the volume knob by a few db should do the trick.


    The mix is front-heavy, as one would expect from a track produced in 1980.




    Special Features:


    All special features have been ported from the 2004 DVD.


    Class Reunion Commentary with Branching Video Highlights featuring Director Alan Parker and Co-stars Lee Cureri, Laura Dean, Gene Anthony Ray and Maureen Teefy. This is an oddly designed special feature, as it was on the 2004 DVD. The audio commentary is entirely by director Parker, and it’s a relatively engaging affair when one considers that almost a quarter of a century had passed since he’d made the film and, by his own admission, he hadn’t seen it in a long time. Parker himself remarks on the vagaries of memory. He says that he can remember filming certain scenes in minute detail, while others he didn’t even remember until he saw them while recording his commentary.


    At various points during the commentary, an icon appears, signaling the option to branch to interview footage. At the beginning and conclusion, it’s just footage of Parker recording his commentary, which is of little interest. But most of the branching footage is of four of the film’s co-stars being interviewed about memories of the film, and this is the true “class reunion”. On the DVD, the only way to get to this footage was to watch the entire film with the commentary switched on and wait for the icon. (Well, OK, if you were patient, you could keep searching the DVD by title number until you hit the correct sequence.) The Blu-ray improves on this format by allowing you to select the individual interview segments from the special features menu.


    It may be a shock for some viewers to see the 40-something adults that the teens in the film have become, but it’s worth it for the experience of hearing Gene Anthony Ray describe his audition for Leroy and Lee Cureri describe his battles with the wardrobe department over the appropriate outfits for Bruno Martelli. Laura Dean shares vivid memories of the film’s premiere, while Maureen Teefy seems oddly disengaged (possibly because she’d quit acting by the time the commentary was recorded).


    Vintage Featurette: On Location with Fame (11:54) (SD; 4:3 centered in a 16:9 frame). This short making-of offers a look at Parker and cast during the summer of 1979, when the film was made (an intensely hot summer, as Parker recalls more than once during his commentary). It provides a good sense of the mindset and the atmosphere during the filming of Fame.


    Fame Field Trip (10:57) (SD; 4:3 centered in a 16:9 frame). A few years after the film appeared, the school depicted in it was folded into the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts near Lincoln Center. This visit to the current institution reveals a more modern facility but much the same atmosphere of wide-eyed optimism. Jim Moody, who holds the same position at the school teaching acting that he plays in the film, speaks with wonderment about the lines that form around the block every year as prospective students wait to audition for a place at the school.


    Trailer (1:85:1; 16:9 enhanced).


    Soundtrack Sampler CD. Not the full soundtrack, it contains four selections: the title track in two versions (vocal and instrumental), “Hot Lunch Jam” and “Red Light”.




    Disc Menu and Authoring:

    This is not an area on which I usually comment, but Warner Home Video makes great Blu-rays and has shown that it’s responsive to consumer concerns. If we don’t tell them when they do it wrong, how are they supposed to know?


    One of the enjoyable features of most Warner’s Blu-rays is that they don’t come burdened with BD-Java code. As a result, they load quickly, but another benefit is that Warner’s are among the few Blu-rays where you can stop the disc and resume playback at the same point. Any frequent reader of HTF’s high-definition software area knows how many complaints have been inspired by the loss of this feature on discs encoded with BD-Java.


    Well, Fame is one of the rare Warner discs with Java encoding. Why? Apparently it’s needed for the branching, picture-in-picture commentary. What DVD could manage with its basic programming language, Blu-ray can’t do without BD-Java, and all the extra baggage it carries with it.


    So, unlike most Warner Blu-rays, Fame takes extra time to load, and once you hit play, the 134-minute film can’t be stopped and resumed from the same point. But it gets worse. At least on previous Warner discs encoded with BD-Java (e.g., The Dark Knight), Warner included a basic function offering a substitute (although a poor one) for stop-and-resume: the ability to bookmark your location. That essential substitute (using the green button on the remote as the standard “create a bookmark” command) is nowhere to be found on the Fame Blu-ray.


    To make matters worse, Warner continues not to include a main menu or home option on its Jave-encoded Blu-rays (The Dark Knight’s menu had the same design flaw). This deprives the user of one of the other workarounds for BD-Java’s loss of stop-and-resume, which is the ability to go to a main menu, then resume play. The only option that Warner offers on the pop-up menu that can be summoned during playback of Fame is to “pause” the film – which is redundant, since the player’s remote can already do that. This is poor design, and if the people in charge of Warner’s Blu-ray authoring want to see how it should be done with BD-Java, I suggest viewing any recent disc from Sony, Paramount or Fox.


    I realize that, to some people, matters like these are details. But usability is all about details. The Blu-ray format is no longer new, and Warner is not some start-up studio dipping its toe into the market. Fame is an otherwise exemplary Blu-ray, and these is no excuse for such user-unfriendly authoring and menu design.




    In Conclusion:


    Parker would revisit the tension between the joy of performing and the dirty realities of life as a performer in 1991's The Commitments. The latter film has a more traditional narrative “spine” than Fame, because it chronicles the speedy rise and fall of an Irish “soul” band, but the cinematic template is one that Parker had already perfected in Fame: a struggling group of young people in gritty surroundings fighting odds they can’t beat to express an urge they can’t suppress – and all of it bound together and lifted up by music an audience can’t resist.




    Equipment used for this review:


    Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (TrueHD decoded internally and output as analog)

    Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)

    Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough

    Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier

    Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears

    Boston Accoustics VR-MC center

    SVS SB12-Plus sub
  2. ManW_TheUncool

    ManW_TheUncool Producer

    Aug 18, 2001
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    Excellent review as usual, Mike!

    I actually already received my copy and might get around to watching it this weekend. But I was curious to read your erudite ruminations on it all the same. :)



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