Nov 12, 2015

Watch & Learn: Fame (2009)

It's November! That means all across the world there are countless authors hard at work on their NaNoWriMo projects.

To help get everyone into the writing groove, I wanted to post another Watch & Learn. I kicked this series off with the lessons we can take from the latest Star Wars trailer, but this time we're going somewhere a little different.

I'm gonna live forever...

Now, I'm going to come right out and say this. I am not a fan of the original 1980 Fame directed by Alan Parker. I've always felt it was never really able to make up its mind if it was meant to be a musical, a comedy, or a serious drama. It tries to be all three and while the few emotional gut-punching scenes are powerful, I feel the rest of the movie flounders.

While the 2009 remake is a lot less gritty and dark, and still has its flaws, I feel it has a much stronger sense of what it's trying to be, and is far superior in terms of storycraft and character development. We'll be looking at both the movie's strong and weak points today.

So take your places, class is in session. And spoilers ahoy.

Fame (2009)

Stories are universal, and you can (I'd even say you should) take inspiration and lessons from genres other than the one(s) you write in. Fame is pretty far from what I write, but I still learned a lot from this movie.

So here are the lessons we'll be covering as we analyse the movie:

  1. Every character is the protagonist of their own story
  2. Presenting old ideas from a new perspective
  3. Characters must suffer
  4. Starting your story based on the needs of its ending
  5. Character development as transformation
  6. Problematic mistakes
  7. The reader doesn't need to see everything
  8. Not everyone gets their happy ending
  9. But everyone should have their story brought to a proper close
The movie opens in the same style as the original; it's Audition Day, and the various applicants to the School of Performing Arts are shown presenting their audition pieces. 

One of the very nice visual tricks of the movie that you might not notice at first is the camera work. Most of the movie is shot with shakycam. Not the blurry, obfuscating mess made popular by the Jason Bourne movies, but a gentle, natural style that mirrors the way a person's own vision might move. It places the audience intimately in the scene, as if they're right there. There are no angle shots or camera pans. Just the view as an actual person might see it.

That is, until, we get to a performance. Not the auditions, mind you. The musical set pieces of the movie. These are all shot with steadycam, and take us from the "real" world of the movie into the heightened world of performance. It's a nice touch.

While the auditions include a few characters who won't be accepted, they also introduce us to the characters we'll be following: Jenny, Marco, Neil, Joy, Kevin, Alice, Victor, Denise, and Malik. We also meet their teachers, Principal Simms (played by Fame alumna Debbie Allen), Mr Dowd, Ms Kraft, Ms Rowan, and Mr Cranston.

Lesson 1 applies here. Every one of the students is a lead character in their own story. Some are sharing their story with another character, while others are on solo journeys. But this is the first step. And in keeping with Lesson 4, we learn something about each of the students that will become important for their story.

  • Jenny is tense, insecure, and desperate to impress. She's in a love story, with Marco.
  • Marco is cocky and casual. Of all the students, he is shown most at ease in his own skin and in what he has to do. It's worth noting that he is also the student with the least amount of character growth. This is going to feed into Lessons 5 and 6. Character development must be a significant change in the character. Marco is the only student who asks "So did I get in?" after his audition. But he's not asking, really. He believes he has. He just wants to hear it said.
  • Neil is also cocky, supremely so. He's also fairly pretentious, describing himself as a "method director." We'll see how this sets him up for his fall, as his story is a tragedy; a tale of hubris.
  • Joy is "fearless" as Mr Dowd says. She's also got a hint of insecurity about her, and is concerned others find her fearless side to be annoying. Joy's story is a traditional coming of age.
  • Kevin is a dancer, and very hopeful for himself. Ms Kraft's remark about him possibly going home sooner than he thinks hint to his story. Kevin's here, like Joy, for a coming of age, a story about his struggle to make it big in the world of dance.
  • Alice is yet another confident character, but she's far more reserved about it than Neil or Marco. Alice has a quiet sureness of herself, and doesn't even have any lines yet. She's paired with Victor for a relatively complex story about balancing a relationship with career dreams.
  • Victor is a talented composer and musician, but he's also eager to impress. He's never quite sure that he's good enough to be accepted, but as we'll see from his first year at PA, he has an interesting contrasting trait whereby he believes his way of making music is superior to others.
  • Denise, like Victor, is scared of not being good enough. She's so scared of failing that she has never been able to see just how talented she is. And it takes Mr Cranston forcing her to face that fear, by saying he doubts she could play better (normally a lead-in to a criticism) because she was superb. It takes others making Denise confront her fears before she can grow.
  • Malik is first seen sneaking out of his home, with his mother calling after him. So we know even going to PA will be a source of conflict for him. During his audition, his monologue breaks into a rap piece, and Mr Dowd has to get him to stop and reign in his anger. Malik will spend his story coming to terms with pain and loss.
So those are our main characters. 9 characters, and 7 storylines. There's a lot packed into this movie, and it still has a runtime of just 107 minutes. Whoever tells you their book needs to be very long to tell the story they want, or that certain genres require long wordcounts is frankly wrong. Lesson 7: The reader does not need to see everything. You can strip out whatever you want, or whatever your editor asks, and so long as the story still makes sense, you'll be fine. Quantity does not equal quality. Remember this.

Freshman Year kicks right off next, and we see the characters' established traits coming back up, from Jenny's tension and stress to Kevin's inadequacies as a dancer. It's important to show that characters' struggles don't go away quickly. Lesson 3: Characters must suffer. If an obstacle can be overcome as soon as the characters face it, it was never a real obstacle and has no place being presented as one.

And here we come to the first of the musical numbers, and where we see how this version of Fame has things more together than the original.

The the Alan Parker original, "Hot Lunch" was a strange, semi-comedic song which really served no purpose. It was a bunch of contrived rhymes ("If it's yellow, then it's jello, if it's blue it could be stew, ooh ooh") that seemed to exist purely to get a song into the movie.

2009's "Lunch Jam," on the other hand, does much, much more. Firstly it's a much more fitting "I want"/"I am" song than "Hot Lunch," and more to the point, it gives us Lesson 1: Everyone is the protagonist of their own story.

Take a few minutes to watch the video above. Each little segment shows us a different set of characters. Note how few of them are the main characters. But they're given full attention when they're on screen. As the camera cuts to each of them, we get a glimpse into their story. The tap dancer who bounds across the tables. The guy and the girl engaged in a rap battle. The blonde who breaks into song. The chubby kid who gets the whole room responding to his shout-outs.

This matters for your writing because your own supporting characters should feel like this. Even though your protagonist will have their friends, or meet a shopkeeper or a teacher, those supporting characters should never feel like they're aware of their narrative status. They should feel like real, fleshed-out, characters, who have their own goals, fears, and motivations beyond helping the hero get through the plot.

After this number we get to see how Malik and Denise both feel trapped or inhibited by their respective parents. It's an important character development point, especially for Denise, and we'll see it come up again.

Importantly, we see that Denise is asked to play for the spring performance of Chicago, but her father refuses to give her permission to take part. He's firmly set that his daughter will follow the path that has been set out for her.

We move into Sophomore Year, and straight up we see that Kevin is still struggling. He is interrupted in a dance practice circle and backs down. We also see that Victor's ego is causing trouble in class, as he insists on putting his own spin on classical music even when instructed not to.

In drama class, Malik tells everyone about his sister, Ayanna, who was killed in a shooting. When asked to confront his feelings about this tragedy by Mr Dowd, Malik becomes angry and storms out. Again, characters must suffer.

Then we get to Denise's big solo number, "Out Here On My Own." This song was originally performed by Irene Cara, and was her character's response to her boyfriend dumping her for someone else. It was fine in the original, but I really feel Naturi Naughton blows the original out of the water here.

This is Lesson 2: Presenting old ideas from a new perspective, and our old friend Lesson 3. Coming from where we last saw Denise, this song is a desperate plea against the strict lifestyle her parents are keeping her to. Watch the way she looks around to make sure she's alone. The hesitation in her fingers before she finally gives in and plays. Teen love stories are everywhere, and they tend to be heightened, emotionally. Teen love in stories is often "true love," but we know in reality this is frequently not the case, so such stories can feel hollow. The pressure of overbearing parents, though? That's real, and something most people can relate to.

This scene leads to Malik learning that Denise can sing, and bringing her on board with a music project he and Victor are working on.

They produce a song, with Denise on vocals, and it's a big hit at the Halloween dance. Enough that Alice takes a romantic interest in Victor, and Denise is disappointed when Malik keeps his promise about not letting anyone know she's singing for them.

Junior Year presents some new challenges.

We see Neil meet with a producer about taking on a short film he's written, but the producer turns out to be a con artist who rips Neil off for the money he got from his father to fund the movie. Denise, Malik, and Victor meet with a representative from a music label, and their initial hopes for a deal are later shattered when they learn the company is interested in Denise, but not Malik and Victor. Denise turns down the offer, preferring instead to work with her friends and build a career with them.

Joy gets a job on Sesame Street, and Jenny meets with a former PA student, Andy, who invited her to the set of his tv show under the guise of an audition to be an extra. However, he tries to force himself on her and she leaves, visibly upset.

This is where we get to Lesson 6: Problematic mistakes. Jenny's been dating Marco for a while now, and he becomes angry at Jenny for meeting with Andy, insisting that he warned her to stay away from him. Now, situations like this are common in real life. Victim-blaming is a serious problem and frequently women are held responsible for becoming victims of rape and sexual assault. Marco believes Jenny is the one at fault, not Andy. And the narrative supports this assertion. We will later see Jenny apologise and ask for Marco's forgiveness, but we never see Marco show any regret for how he treats Jenny. This is something to be very conscious of. While you can absolutely have characters display unlikable traits and behave in this kind of objectionable manner, you should be aware of how your narrative frames such behaviour. It's extremely difficult to present social issues and appear neutral, partly because in many such cases, the very act of attempting neutrality suggests a passive acceptance of a particular problem. So always consider how your own biases are influencing your writing, and decide whether this is a message you want to send or not.

Finally, we reach Senior Year. We're hit hard from the start, with Kevin being given the harsh truth that he will probably never be able to make a living as a professional dancer. He's advised that he might still be able to be an excellent teacher, but is heartbroken, and later attempts suicide, only to be saved by his friends. This, incidentally, is another area I feel this version of the movie is superior to the original, as the original movie sets up a similar scene, only to reveal that the character in question just wanted to toss her dance gear under the train and had decided to transfer to the drama class. It feels like the issue of suicide is exploited, just to create false tension.

Joy likewise receives some bad news. Her grades have fallen below the C-average required to remain in the school, and she flunks out. But, as the principal counsels her, the goal of PA is to produce artists who can support themselves from their craft. Since she's working more and more hours on Sesame Street, she's done that. She might not get to graduate, but she's a professional actress.

Both these two sequences give us Lesson 8: Not everyone gets their happy ending. This is underlined, rather painfully, when Kevin tells Joy that he won't be staying in New York as they'd discussed. He's decided to go back home to Iowa and take over his mom's dance school.

Victor and Alice split up, since Alice has been offered a place with a modern dance company about to go on a world tour. She's far more composed and accepting of it than Victor. Whereas Victor was willing to try and maintain a long-distance relationship, Alice's attitude is that PA students simply go their own ways and don't see each other anymore once it's over.

Malik receives a final lesson from Mr Dowd, about owning and accepting his past, even those events that are painful to remember. "That's your power," he says to Malik. And this is a lesson for your characters. This is why characters have to suffer. A character can never be complete if all they experience are positive events. Without suffering, they can't grow. Without conflict, they can't rise to overcome a challenge. A character needs to develop over time, and each obstacle should teach them a piece of what they need to become to face their final challenge.

The final challenge of the movie comes when Denise, Malik, and Victor give their debut performance with their band at a night club. All their friends are there, and so are Denise's parents. She's decided they need to see her for who she really is.

Again, watch this scene, as Denise slowly grows in confidence, casting aside her fears. But also watch Malik. Previously at the Haloween dance, he spoke for Denise, announcing the vocalist as "anonymous." Here, when he's introducing the band, when it comes to Denise's turn, he repeats the same line from the dance: "And on vocals..." and then he steps back, and lets Denise stand in the spotlight. He doesn't speak for her, he simply steps aside while she speaks for herself.

Afterwards, Denise's father is furious, insisting he'll pull her out of PA. But her mother interjects, and says they will support her no matter what it is she wants to do with her life. This is Lesson 4 reaching completion. Denise's story needed her to stand on her own and take charge of her own destiny. We saw it hinted when she turned down the offer from the music company. As a character, Denise needed her father to be overbearing and stubborn, even emotionally abusive. She needed him to be her antagonist, keeping her from finding small things to enjoy, all the way up until she could take no more and revealed herself as a new person.

As for Lesson 5, Character development as transformation, compare Denise in the video for "Out Here On My Own", where she's meek, withdrawn, and afraid of her own talent, to how she appears in the video for "Get On The Floor." Complete costume change, new way of standing, and the utterly owns the stage.

The Graduation Ceremony is the final scene and musical number of the movie, bringing us to Lesson 9, and everyone's final flourish. Every one of the main characters has either left and finished their story, or is seen taking part in the final performance, showing their talents.

Roll credits. Class dismissed.

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