Eighties remakes - Now they're dancing to a different tune
The Eighties revival is all well and good, says Sarah Hughes, but frothy remakes of some of the decade's best loved films, including 'Fame' and 'Footloose', seem to be seriously missing the point
Friday 18 September 2009
'Right here is where you start paying, in sweat." For a generation, that phrase, forcefully delivered by the dance teacher Lydia Grant (played by the choreographer Debbie Allen) was synonymous with one word: Fame. The Eighties phenomenon, which was first a film and then a long-running television series, detailed the lives, loves and losses of a group of students at New York's High School for the Performing Arts, and, as such, was responsible for convincing an unhealthy number of us that legwarmers were fine, nothing was so bad that it couldn't be cured by the power of a group song-and-dance session on Manhattan's bustling streets, and, most importantly of all, that "fame", that elusive beast, had one incredible quality – achieve it and you would live for ever, not to mention learn how to fly...
Now, a new group of impressionable kids will get their shot at the Fame game as the inevitable remake opens in the UK on 25 September. Directed by Kevin Tancharoen, whose previous credits include a Britney Spears TV special and a television show about the scantily clad girl group the Pussycat Dolls, and starring a cast of young unknowns alongside Frasier's curmudgeonly Kelsey Grammer and the Broadway great Bebe Neuwirth as teachers, the new film promises to follow the same direction as the original, tracking the kids through the ups and downs of their time at the School for the Performing Arts.
Or does it? Because the truth is that the original 1980 movie, directed by Alan Parker, was actually a surprisingly realistic, frequently bleak affair, which, over the course of two hours, touched on pornography, suicide, child rape and drug abuse in addition to probing more traditional coming-of-age subject matter.
Parker's Manhattan was frequently a wintry kingdom: this was New York in the dying days of the Seventies, when the city still had a justified reputation for being the sort of place where anything could and did happen, where Times Square was rough around the edges, and where most of the school's graduates were looking at a future of living in barely habitable bedsits in the Lower East Side, scraping by on the odd cheque and auditioning for bit-parts in off-off-Broadway shows.
By contrast, the remake bears far more of a resemblance to the candy-coloured TV show, which took the original's rough edges and smoothed them away, creating a world in which life's traumas could be washed clean by the right routine, and where teamwork, rather than personal drive, got the job done. Even the infamous quote about "paying, in sweat" was a TV innovation – in the film, Allen's dance teacher is an altogether less loveable creation, and arguably more believable for it.
If anything, the remake pulls off the trick of being even less grounded in reality than the television show. This is Fame by way of High School Musical, a product of the power of the Disney tweenage generation and more sickly sweet than a large, pink bag of candyfloss. It's a world in which love conquers all, where no one truly fails, and where ambition is only fully realised if you are a positive, upbeat individual taking part with your whole school.
The new Fame wouldn't have time for a homely Jewish girl such as the original's heroine, Doris Finsecker, with her quiet longing for loud-mouthed, would-be comic Ralph and her wry pronouncement that "I'm about as flamboyant as a bagel." No, the new Fame is all about hair, and teeth, and glowing skin. It's not about the misfit's desire to belong, but rather about how "special" we can all be, if only we put on our tap shoes and dance.
And it's not alone in this message. Ransacking minor Eighties classics for a new generation is big news right now. Next year will see the remake of the Kevin Bacon danceathon Footloose, starring Gossip Girl's Chace Crawford, hit the big screen, while Disney's tween superstar Zac Efron will take over the dancing duties from John Travolta in a remake of Saturday Night Fever. A remake of the blue-collar Jennifer Beals movie Flashdance, in which a welder follows her dancing dreams, has also long been mooted.
In all three cases, it will be a shock if they approach anything like the grittiness of the originals. Take Footloose. This would have been just another teen movie for the decade in which the John Hughes-driven brat pack ruled the screens, except for two things: the angular, distinctly odd-looking Kevin Bacon was never what you'd call a bona-fide teen idol, being altogether too awkward and intense, and the film's premise, in which a big-city boy turns religious rubes on to the power of dancing and rock'n'roll, is one that might struggle to play well today in America's conservative heartland. And while Bacon's frustration with small-town life and its Bible-bashing ways was easily believable, it's hard to imagine the chiselled Crawford flicking back his man bangs and declaring, "I tell you what I'd like to do – I'd like to fold a Playboy centrefold into every one of Reverend Shaw's hymn books."
Similarly, when you strip away the white suit and the much- mimicked dance routines, the original version of Saturday Night Fever was a bleak tale of unemployment and low prospects, in which our Brooklyn hero's only release from the daily monotony of his humdrum life is the weekend dance competition and his only dream is to move across the river to Manhattan. That this short move seems so improbable is testament to the film's realistic depiction of the narrow outlook of most of its protagonists.
Now try and imagine that same film with Efron, admittedly a likeable and competent actor, in the main role. It's impossible. The Efron brand isn't about narrow lives and fading dreams. It's about pulling together, working hard and believing that you can win the American dream, you can have it all, provided that you also have the all-powerful Disney family by your side.
It's this disconnection between the originals and their remakes that makes the latter so unlikely. Fame, Footloose and Saturday Night Fever all end on reasonably upbeat notes, yet it doesn't take much to imagine the reality a few years down the line. Doris, frumpy and forgotten, lives in the New Jersey suburbs, talking wistfully of those few heady years in New York. Ralph is dead of an overdose after following his hero, Freddie Prinze, down the speed-driven road of no return. Montgomery has the odd bit part off-off-Broadway and works in a hospice looking after patients with Aids. Leroy has a wife, kids and a tiny, over-crowded apartment; he still gets the odd gig but in his heart he knows it's not what it might have been. Coco is still lying to herself about artistic decisions as she contemplates whether or not to make that move into porn. Meanwhile, Footloose's Ren has settled for life in the Bible belt with three children and a doting wife, and he spends his evenings hiding in his den, reverently stroking his Eighties long-players, remembering the days when he still had fire in his soul. Tony Manero, meanwhile, beer-bellied and back in Brooklyn, corners young whippersnappers in bars to talk nostalgically of the brief time when he was disco's king.
The Eighties originals were not afraid to flirt with failure, but the new remakes can only contemplate gleaming, glorious success. These are carefully packaged films for the all-important Twilight generation, who believe that vampires, far from being scary albeit seductive monsters, are sparkling heroes who just want tell you how special you are. It's a world in which no setback is so big that it can't be solved by a group hug and no talent is so small that you won't make it one day. Forget about paying in sweat, Fame: the new generation tells you that if you just turn up and take part, then you're bound to become a star.
'Fame' is released on 25 September
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