Sunday 9 August 2020

Remembering Alan Parker - John Baxter recalls the film-maker's now much-admired musical FAME (MGM, USA, 1980)

  Alan Parker died on 31 July 2020.
Fame,Title song
       Movie previews and press screenings seldom earn a place in one’s golden book of memories. The films, perhaps - but the events that precede and follow too often resemble the cardboard enclosing one’s popcorn and Coke.
       The more elaborate such occasions, the more often they go awry. The worst sometimes involve a give-away; some gadget or product designed to keep green the memory of the film, at least long enough to write about it.  Who, one wonders, thought up the desk set handed out for Robert Aldrich’s nuclear war drama Twilight’s Last Gleaming, with pens shaped like ICBMs? And what drove the publicists for De Sade, in which Keir Dullea, as an anything-but-divine marquis, licks confiture from the bodies of prostitutes, to present journalists with pots of raspberry jam? Probably the same person who, for a film about a German necrophile, served a buffet of hard boiled eggs made to look like eyeballs, rolled sandwiches resembling severed fingers and, of course, Bloody Marys to wash them down. 

       Occasionally, however, the gods of cinema (or are they imps and incubi?) smile. The recent death of Sir Alan Parker recalled one such event. 
Alan Parker
Passing through New York in May 1980, I was invited to a preview of Parker’s new film. I knew his gangster spoof Bugsy Malone, but his last creation, the grim account of life in a Turkish prison, Midnight Express, didn’t suggest that this one, called, ambiguously, Fame, would provide an inspiring night at the movies.

Nothing prepared me for the melee surrounding the midtown cinema that evening. Had I not arrived early, I would never have got in, since MGM had rashly combined a press preview with the traditional screening for relatives and friends of the production. Well before the lights went down, there was a bum, if not two, on every seat.

It soon became clear that, for this audience, the film could do no wrong. Cheers greeted each familiar face. Every song was deafeningly applauded. And when the students of the Performing Arts High School boiled out into the streets to halt traffic as they dance to the title song, every spectator was on his or her feet, clapping and whooping, while those who could find space jived in the aisles. 
Antonia Franceschi
I persuaded the BBC’s arts program Kaleidoscope to let me review Fame on its UK release and tried to capture some of that ebullience but, to my surprise, not everyone shared my enthusiasm. Europeans found it too brash, too American. The quasi-cynicism of A Chorus Line was more to their taste. Fame lost money, and only came into its own with the spin-off TV series and stage production. Today, however, few would argue with Roger Ebert’s assessment that “Fame is a genuine treasure, moving and entertaining, [with] the haunting suggestion that some of the ones who find fame will be able to handle it, and some will not.”
Lee Curreri
Watching Fame again recently, I wondered what became of those featured in the film, and went on line to find out. Irene Cara, touted as a new star, had a modest career, but never quite became Whitney Houston. The powerful voice always looked too big for her body. This even became a joke in the film. She suggests to composer/song-writer Bruno (Lee Curreri) that they perform as a duo for weddings and bar mitzvahs. She’d need some revealing costumes, of course, because “tits make hits.”  Curreri looks pointedly at her chest and says “I don’t think our tits are up to it.” 
Irene Cara, Gene Anthony Ray
Curreri lucked into the tv series, along with Gene Anthony Ray (Leroy, the illiterate black dancer), Albert Hague (the crusty, bearded music teacher) and Debbie Allen (the dance teacher). But what about Barry Miller, the brash Hispanic comic who so amusingly mimed the agony of a bowel movement following an incendiary Mexican lunch? Or Antonia Franceschi, the ballerina from a wealthy family who arrived home with Leroy in tow and disappeared with him into her room with the offhand explanation “Homework”?  Miller, it seems, acted with distinction on Broadway and had a few small movie and tv roles (I didn’t recognise him as the schoolboy inventor in Peggy Sue Got Married.) Except for a couple of bits as a dancer in the background, Franceschi never worked in movies again. Moving to London, she found some success as a dancer and choreographer. If fame was what these people hoped for, they didn’t achieve it. 
Barry Miller 
But were they ever meant to? Parker conceded that Fame’s true subject was failure, both personal and professional. It isn’t the dancing-in-the-streets title tune that reflects the reality of show business but the whistling in the dark of Out Here On My Own. He later distanced himself from the film, admitting he preferred The Commitments, an unpretentious account of the rise and fall of a backyard Irish blues band. 
Parker’s music films met the same fate as those of his contemporary Ken Russell. Affectionate as both were towards the musical, neither could bring himself to surrender whole-heartedly to its conventions as Minnelli and Donen had done. The Wall, Evita and Fame all strive to be something else – social realism, political polemic, opera – while Russell’s Tommy, Lizstomania and The Boy Friend are marred by their apologetic derision. Stephen Vincent Benet wrote of his search for “the true,the American thing.”  Perhaps the movie musical is it.

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