(#268: 24 July 1982, 2 weeks; joint number one with The Lexicon Of Love in its first week)
Track listing: Fame/Out Here On My Own/Hot Lunch Jam/Dogs In The Yard/Red Light/Is It OK If I Call You Mine?/Never Alone/Ralph And Monty (Dressing Room Piano)/I Sing The Body Electric
While figuring out what to say about Fame, I tried to remember what Alan Parker was actually doing in the summer of 1982, and then it hit me; it was Pink Floyd – The Wall, an interesting if doomed attempt (in tandem with Gerald Scarfe) to film the unfilmable, mostly shot in and around Battersea Power Station with lots of shots of a morose and mute Bob Geldof staring at a television screen. Then I remembered the film’s fifties school sequence and realised that the film, like Fame, was a fairly unyielding meditation on how an education system can fuck you up.
Back in 1980, Parker had wanted to use the actual New York High School of Performing Arts for location filming, but the New York Board of Education were having none of it; remembering that this film was coming off the back of Midnight Express, the Board objected that Parker might view the school as he had done Turkish prisons. And perhaps the director’s greatest feat here was to make a performing arts school akin to being in a Turkish prison.
But MGM, who signed both the project and Parker up, had not released a profitable musical in years, and the skilful remoulding of the old Garland/Rooney let’s-do-the-show-right-here ethos, as well as the then-recent memory of Parker’s work on Bugsy Malone, may have persuaded them to take Fame on.
Wishing his audience to believe that they were watching real students rather than actors, Parker enlisted a group of relatively unknown players with slightly better-known actors to play the teaching roles; music department head Professor Shorofsky was played by old-time Broadway composer Albert Hague (“Young And Foolish,” The Grinch Who Stole Christmas), but the director was unaware of the distinguished career of Anne Meara, who played English head Mrs Sherwood (she was half of the highly successful comedy double act Stiller and Meara with her husband Jerry Stiller; Ben and Amy are their children).
The film was not immediately successful in the States (no stars, an R rating – there is an explicit scene of sexual abuse towards the film’s end) and made its returns gradually; Irene Cara’s (eventually Oscar-winning) title song went top five as a single on Billboard, and the film eventually prospered on overseas screenings and cable and home video rentals.
When shuddering at the me-first projections of most of the songs used on the soundtrack, it is instructive to remember that most of the hopeful students in the film do not exactly have the best of times, or the luckiest of lives. Yet the concluding impression of Fame is that, despite its worthy attempts to address issues of race, class, literacy and sexuality, the film finally turns away from those implications in favour of an uncritical extolment of fame as an end in itself, or even an entitled right. Instead, it becomes an extended soap opera, much like 1973’s The Paper Chase but with Harvard Law School being replaced by singing and dancing (and the befuddled and grouchy Hague is not the John Houseman figure this film so badly needed); the students audition, progress and graduate, and in the end nothing is really questioned or attacked. So few blacks still manage to get a dancing career by accident. So few people from the projects get a chance to escape Brooklyn or the Bronx at all.
The central setpiece of the film depicts the various would-be performers seemingly spontaneously and telepathically breaking out of their classrooms and studios, dancing, singing and cartwheeling into the downtrodden Lower East Side streets, jumping on and off car bonnets, and so forth. While this was doubtless intended to portray the unquenchable enthusiasm of youth, what it actually presages is the unstenchable impatience of youth eager to grab every superficial thing the eighties had to offer. "You ain't seen the best of me yet," says the title song, unintentionally paraphrasing Al Jolson, but the truth of fear rather than love being the principal spur reveals itself in the subsequent line "Give me time, I'll make you forget the rest." Is that the rest of "me" or the rest of humanity?
No, this is not genuine liberation; the students do not “occupy” the streets of the city, and we know as we watch it that we are witnessing a lie – such “demonstrations” and “outbursts” get almost immediately quenched by sirens, handcuffs and shootings. The theme song is all hyperactivity and petulant ambition: "Don't you know who I am?" "People will see me and cry" (though that "cry" could just as well be "die"). "I'm gonna live forever." "Baby I'll be tough/Too much is not enough...NO!" "I'm gonna make it to heaven/Light up the sky like a flame" - presumably in the manner of Slim Pickens rodeo-riding the bomb at the climax of Dr Strangelove.
The template was now decided; mere talent was no longer enough (as though it ever were), and success depended on how loudly you screamed or stamped your feet, or how acridly you stamped on the feet of others. The consequences of that reverberate still through everything from The X-Factor to Iraq; no more boring socialist consensus, it's a jungle (for the flipside of the "dream," see "The Message," a top ten hit in the UK not long after “Fame”’ success), the market rules, failures will not be tolerated. "Fame" – as Elliott Randall’s panicking guitar solo attests - sets a chilling precedent.
The rest of the soundtrack album really does not offer any improvement. Michael Gore, brother of screenwriter Christopher Gore, was hired to write (most of) the music; you may know their sister, Lesley Gore, who wrote the lyric to “Out Here On My Own” and some of the lyric to “Hot Lunch Jam.” The former is actually about the most coherent song on the record; a ballad which does its best to be “When Two Worlds Drift Apart” but misses by several hundred miles (Cara’s shrill vocals do the song no favour). “Hot Lunch Jam” – the film was originally named Hot Lunch, until somebody pointed out to Parker that a pornographic movie of that name was doing the rounds at the time – does its feeble best to be Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” with a “I Can’t Help Myself” string line and a “free form” ending which is embarrassing.
“Dogs In The Yard,” sung by Paul McCrane (who plays drama student Montgomery MacNeil) and written by Bugatti and Musker, the duo responsible for Paul Nicholas’ monody of mid-seventies hits (and featuring a young Marcus Miller on bass), is weedy in the REO Speedwagon sense (“I want to go crazy, like the dogs in the yard”) with requisite horrendous corporate “rock” guitar lines. “Red Light” is perhaps the dullest “disco” record ever made; nearly six-and-a-quarter minutes of Linda Clifford (who had no other involvement with the film) gamely trying to be Edwin Starr but losing – and with lyrics of the calibre of “I’m raging out of control” (as the song pooters along like a reluctant Reliant Robin) and “Lord have mercy” – I harboured similar thoughts when I saw there was still a minute and a half of the song to go – it is hardly any surprise. Lena says that this song is like being taught disco moves in PE class at school, and I won’t be arguing with that.
“Is It OK If I Call You Mine?,” just McCrane and his acoustic guitar, ranks with the worst things I have heard in the course of doing TPL; a seriously out-of-tune vocal and a song and performance so drippy that they make Bread seem like Pere Ubu. “Never Alone” at least tries to inject some life into the proceedings, being an energetic and enterprising gospel choir workout to which I will almost certainly never listen again.
The thin gruel heard thus far, however, is far outweighed in badness by the closing “I Sing The Body Electric.” As though it were not presumptuous enough to try to invoke Walt Whitman (who wouldn’t have lasted five minutes at a school like this), the song then becomes a very frightening spectre indeed. And I am not talking of the sub-War Of The Worlds guitar soloing throughout, but the gradual and horrific realisation that this song is celebrating naked ambition with no room for self-reflection or even self-awareness. It rolls up slowly and determinedly, like a Panzer tank, and if you were wondering exactly whose name Irene Cara was demanding that you remember in the title song, then think of “Fame” as the name (just as the protagonist of “I Write The Songs” is “Music”), as this overpowering but avidly-desired monster.
Then watch as the monster slowly takes these people over and turns them into a dead-eyed mass, worshipping the idea of fame as virtue in itself, not something you achieve as a result of any talent or ability you might have; it is as if, by virtue of being famous, you will end up going to heaven. Listen to these words: “I celebrate the me yet to come,” “Creating my own tomorrow/When I shall embody the Earth” (“Tomorrow Belongs To Me”?), “I’ll burn with the fire of ten million stars,” and, perhaps worst of all, “We are the emperors now/And we are the Czars” - Leni Riefenstahl could have directed the video – and it is clear that this is where this tale takes the wrong turning; if you can see the tsunami of Reagan coming over the horizon in the course of “Fame,” then here is embodied the Thatcher/Reagan creed of “individualism” (even as the singers are turned into a single machine) cast within what is a very old-fashioned view of showbusiness and “progress”; as the song crashes down in a mess of Zarathustra and William Tell orchestral chords, we can see the nightmare to come, of Nuremberg pop songs called things like “Rule The World,” “Burn,” “Champion” and “Roar,” of music that will brook no question, doubt or dissension. As if that was all that people really wanted. They stared The Lexicon Of Love in the face and, being fatally safety-first, turned away from it, back towards the known. “WE WILL ALL BE STARS” the song and record conclude – is that a literal, atomised threat of a promise? Or maybe Parker intended Pink’s “Waiting For The Worms” to be this song’s belated and inevitable sequel (“You cannot reach me now”).
And if you are wondering why this album was number one, and the title song a number one single, in Britain fully two years after they were released; like The Paper Chase, the film of Fame turned out to be essentially a pilot for a television series, the latter of which was being broadcast here in the summer of 1982. The tragedy is that this story will continue, or persist, into the next entry.