Before and After

The other day I decided, for reasons I have yet to determine, I needed to watch the original Fame. Oh wait, the reason is coming back to me. I was talking about my favourite stage plays. Fameis high on the list. Anyway, I decided to watch the original movie. I’d seen the tv show, but I wasn’t sure I’d ever actually watched the movie. And if I’m watching the original, what better use of my time than to watch it back to back with the 2009 remake. I was surprised to discover that this wasn’t a reimagining like so many of the ‘we’ve run out of ideas’ movies that have been coming out in the last decade. This was a pretty faithful, but lacking, remake.

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Watching them back to back reaffirmed something I’ve noticed before. 80s teen movies took way more risk than their modern counterparts. I remembered seeing movies when I was a kid (like 6-8 years old) and thinking they were shocking. Breaking All the Rules sticks out as one of these. My parents had it recorded on a VHS tape and I would sneak out of my room to watch it. I have no idea why, but I remember it being really dirty to my little girl brain. Now, I haven’t rewatched this movie since I was in the single digits, and maybe it’s not as risqué as I remember, but it might just be. Modern movies catch a lot of flack for being overly sexualized and naughty – and some of them are. But 80s movies showed way more than current movies. They took more chances. Are there problems with today’s teen movies? Hell yes. Young women are represented as insipid and weak far too often. But that’s another post. What I’m talking about here is accurate representation of a teen lifestyle.

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The original Fame came out in 1980. And from the opening frame, you know that this is a performing arts trope movie. The audition sequence paved the way for pretty much every dance/movie/singing movie that’s come out in the decades since – just with worse hair. The 2009 version begins in exactly the same way, but with slightly better hair – but give that another 30 years. Both movies cover multiple years and students. The attendees go through four years of high school and the myriad of changes that accompany those that part of a person’s life. There are scenes that are lifted from the first movie and placed into the second, but with very different outcomes. These students are so focused on becoming stars that they end up in some precarious situations.

Scenario 1
Coco is a strong, confident, vibrant go-getter. She knows she’s better than other students, but she’s taken advantage of by a casting director – who makes her strip down and tells her to put her thumb in her mouth like a little girl. The audience is shown the crying, stripped Coco shamefully standing naked in front of the camera. Her dreams are broken. We never see if she talks about it with anyone, but my guess is no.

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In the remake – Jenny is the shy, quiet girl who doesn’t think she’s as good as the other students. A former hot boy student from the school invites her to set to see a casting director. She tries to take advantage of her while both of them are fully clothed. She pushes him off immediately and when he tries again she leaves. When she tells her boyfriend what happened, he breaks up with her.

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The recap – original movie message – don’t be too eager, people will take advantage of you and lead you to do something that will make you feel shameful. Remake message – if you’re a girl who’s being sexually harassed, and you tell someone you trust, they will blame you…

Scenario 2
Leroy gets into the school because of his dance prowess – and his weird penis rubbing dance that gives Debbie Allen dirty thoughts. However, it quickly becomes clear that he can’t read. There’s a heart wrenchingly sad scene where he tries to read a Maytag advertisement and ends up giving up because he can’t get through it all. His teacher knows he can’t read, but never directly offers him help. He probably wouldn’t have taken it, but this kid is let down by his education system.

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In the remake – Victor can’t read sheet music… it’s alluded to like twice but never confirmed. His scene is supposed to be a play off the Bruno scene in the original with the classic versus modern debate, but the fact that Victor never plays the sheet music hints at something else. It’s a sad comparison. The other possible comparison to Leroy is when Joy flunks out because of her job and they essentially tell her that she’s learned what they meant to teach her and dropping out of school is cool cause she’s got a job.

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The recap – original movie message – the American education system is failing its students by not teaching them to read. Remake message – the American education system is still failing its damn students but now it’s painting these failures with false promises.

Scenario 3
Hilary is the snotty, best dancer in the school. She knows it. She has wealthy parents she hates and wants to shock them with her choice of boyfriend – Leroy. We see little of this relationship, but eventually Hilary is accepted into a prestigious ballet company and will be dropping out of school. The last scene of Hilary is her sitting a chair talking to an unseen person about dancing and her future and how a baby doesn’t fit into those plans. Then the camera pans and we see that’s she’s alone, talking to the nurse about setting up an abortion.

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In the remake – Alice is also the best dancer in school. She has wealthy parents. She also chooses the ‘risky’ boyfriend – Victor. Her parents don’t approve. She gets accepted into a prestigious dance program. She’s dropping out of school. Her parents are happy because she’s been dancing for a long time. End of story.

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The recap – Original – abortion is a painful choice, but it is a choice. Remake – we shall never mention abortion in relation to teens. Dropping out of school is cool. Bah!

There are more examples, but I’ll leave those to you to judge on your own. Something has happened to the messages we’re giving teens and the personas we’re asking them to build – especially through visual media. How is it that we were more adventurous and honest in a time considered so much more conservative than we are now? Are we fooling ourselves thinking we’re so enlightened? Maybe…

I don’t think this is happening in books, but that might be a project for the future.

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