It was 1980. I had just graduated from high school and was all set to start my first year of college majoring in music. I was thrilled that I wouldn’t have to march another step or play one more rendition of “Shake Your Groove Thing” from Bill Moffit’s Sound Power Series. And that summer following graduation, FAME struck a chord with me as I was set to embark on this new chapter in my life.
The kids in FAME were living their dreams…AND they were doing it in high school! My reality had been the 110-degree parking lot blacktop that seared through the soles of my sneakers as I sweated through another excruciating mid-August marching band practice. But no more. I was going to live my musical dream too, even if Arlington, Texas, was a far cry from the exciting, gritty Times Square milieu of the film.
Since I was working at the now long-defunct Six Flags Mall theater, I had the opportunity to see FAME numerous times, for free. More times than not, especially if I went during the day, I was the only person in the theater. I didn’t care.
Scenes from the film stick with me to this day:
Doris Finsecker’s (Maureen Teefy) painful, yet poignant, drama audition, as a tape of her little brother on piano butchers “The Way We Were” while her mother takes snapshots
The black girl whose entire audition consists of a scene from THE TOWERING INFERNO where O. J. Simpson is waiting for the elevator
Coco’s (Irene Cara) baring of her most unattractive breasts (I can still do a pretty good imitation of her in that scene)
After being shown the door, Shirley Mulholland’s (Carol Massenburg) classic line: “Who wants to go to this ass-lickin’ school anyway?” (Amen, sister!)
FAME launched the careers of numerous actors. In addition to Cara, who would later win a Grammy and an Oscar for the popular FLASHDANCE theme song, the film stars Paul McCrane as gay Montgomery, years before he starred on E.R.; Barry Miller as the comic Ralph, who would later win a Tony Award for BILOXI BLUES; choreographer Debbie Allen in a bit part; and Gene Anthony Ray, who would make a career out of FAME, starring as Leroy in the successful TV series. And that’s not to mention old-timers like Anne Meara and Albert Hague (the Tony-winning composer of REDHEAD) as teachers. Half the fun of watching the film today is those “celebrity” sightings.
But FAME wouldn’t be FAME without the music. The title song was the big hit from the soundtrack and won the Oscar, but I preferred Coco’s plaintive ballad, “Out Here On My Own” (also nominated). The energy of “Red Light” and “Hot Lunch Jam” were infectious. But it’s the soaring “I Sing the Body Electric” finale that sends you out on a musical high.
As a film score proper, FAME couldn’t hold a candle to other great scores that year like THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, ALTERED STATES, TESS, and THE ELEPHANT MAN. But Oscar voters awarded Michael Gore his second Oscar for the score, beating out those other four nominees. Most film music fans consider that Oscar to be one of the greatest injustices in a long line of questionable Academy choices. And I would have chosen any of the other four as well. But Gore’s music burrowed under my skin and to this day I can still spin the entire album in my head.
If you weren’t of a certain age in 1980, FAME may not resonate with you. But the pursuit of our dreams is timeless, and in that way, FAME ultimately succeeds.