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A view on Blu-ray and DVD video by Leonard Norwitz

Fame [Blu-ray]

 

(Alan Parker, 1980)

 

 

 

Review by Leonard Norwitz

 

Studio:

Theatrical: MGM

Blu-ray: Warner Home Video

 

Region: B (as verified by the Momitsu region FREE Blu-ray player)

Runtime: 2:02:49.153

Disc Size: 31,326,090,503 bytes

Feature Size: 28,900,712,448 bytes

Video Bitrate: 23.08 Mbps

Chapters: 37

Case: Standard Blu-ray case

Release date: September 28th, 2009

 

Video:

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Resolution: 1080p / 23.976 fps

Video codec: VC-1 Video

 

Audio:

Dolby TrueHD Audio English 1511 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 1511 kbps / 16-bit (AC3
Core: 5.1 / 48 kHz / 640 kbps)
Dolby Digital Audio English 192 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 192 kbps / Dolby Surround
Dolby Digital Audio French 192 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 192 kbps / Dolby Surround
Dolby Digital Audio German 192 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 192 kbps / Dolby Surround
Dolby Digital Audio Spanish 192 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 192 kbps / Dolby Surround
Dolby Digital Audio Italian 192 kbps 1.0 / 48 kHz / 192 kbps

 

Subtitles:

English, Chinese (traditional + simplified), French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, none

 

Extras:

• Audio Commentary with Alan Parker

• Class Reunion Interview Clips (approx 22 min.)

• Vintage Featurette: On Location with Fame (11:44)

• Fame Field Trip (10:57)

• Theatrical Trailer

 

 

The Film: 7
For a long time after the advent of sound it seemed there were two basic approaches to the American movie musical: The first, where characters would just burst into song and dance when the spirit moved them, are classically represented by MGM in The Wizard of Oz and Singin' in the Rain, and culminated in the widescreen spectacular spectaculars of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Lowe and Leonard Bernstein among others. The second, from 42nd Street to Bob Fosse's adaptation of Cabaret, where the characters are themselves singers and dancers.

By the 1970s, even after such successes as Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and Grease (1978), the movie musical (perhaps we should say the "studio movie musical"), once the staple of the art form, was gasping what seemed to be its last breath. All the same, big time directors couldn't resist the call, and not always with positive results. I think it’s fair to say that Francis Coppola's Finian's Rainbow (1968), John Huston's Annie (1982) and Richard Attenborough's A Chorus Line (1985) are among the great lesser movie musicals of all time – that is, those that had no excuse to be bad. And the painful miscasting of the title role for Hello, Dolly! (1969) - a musical whose moment of glory would wait forty years (or 700, depending) for a trash collector to discover it in a long abandoned video format - didn't help matters.

From independently minded sources came fresh ideas that would reinvent the form: Luis Valdez' Zoot Suit (1981) retained much of its design from his original stage play. Herbert Ross's Pennies from Heaven that same year (and its UK/TV incarnation three years earlier) turned the musical upside down merging new looks with old songs. Bob Fosse returned in 1979 with his fantastical quasi-autobiography All That Jazz, and Barbra Streisand rethought the form in Yentl (1983) - successfully, I think. More recently Baz Luhrmann would bend, stretch and smash all the rules in his 2001 romantic noisemaker Moulin Rouge, a movie I admit I fancy despite good reasons not to.

All of which introduction leads us to Alan Parker, one of the few current mainstream directors with serious aspirations as a director of movie musicals. In 1976 he cast children in Bugsy Malone (I wonder if Parker had compatriot Benjamin Britten in the back of his mind on this one). Fame followed four years later with a somewhat older and more streetwise group of kids. Pink Floyd The Wall (1982) came next. And in 1991 he would make the masterpiece he had been rehearsing for the previous fifteen years: The Commitments. The ambitious and frantically edited Evita followed in 1996.

Fame begins with the kind of cutting that many imitate, but few do as well or with Parker's understanding. It's one thing to grant only a second or so per cut to suggest an excited fervent milieu of dancers and musicians in rehearsal; it's quite another to make each shot, artfully lit and photographed by Michael Seresin, count dramatically so that we know what is going on, why the shot is chosen and how it fits with the shots before and after. It takes not just a skilled director, but something of a musician to know how to use technique to reveal the spirit of the thing. But just as no amount of careful storyboarding will reveal the essence of a phrase, no amount of artful editing can make up for a contrived script, which, in the final analysis, Fame suffers from in its final reels.

The movie follows the tribulations and ecstasies of several youngsters at New York's famed High School of Performing Arts. We see them first as freshman aspirants, some with their own unique style of protecting themselves from rejection, others with enough confidence – conceit, might be a more apt term - to become president. Through its two hours and thirteen minutes, we see them through each year of school, finally addressing their uncertain futures as if they've forgotten more about life than they knew before they started.

The cast of kids, by and large, were at the time students and graduates of the High School of the Performing Arts and the Harlem School of Music & Arts. They look like teenagers, too, something that, increasingly these days, they do not in movies in a similar vein. Parker talks about the casting call for his movie and how he settled on the kids for his primary characters, especially that of Leroy (Gene Anthony Ray), who at 18 is competent as an actor and nothing short of electric as a dancer. Barry Miller plays Ralph, who tries desperately to impress everyone with fabrications about his father (at one point Ralph declares his father was a Rockette!). The transparency of his lies are all the more painful because he fools no one but himself. You should remember Barry as the similarly stressed out Bobby C from Saturday Night Fever.

Paul McCrane is the delicate Montgomery, a pre-Gay Pride homosexual who separates himself from others at first but eventually accepts himself. (McCrane gets the last laugh as one of the few actors in the cast who went on to great things as an actor in ER.) Irene Cara is perhaps best known outside of Fame for the TV movie Sister, Sister and for her Oscar-winning song for the movie Flashdance. Unlike Michelle Pfeiffer, Maureen Teefy, who plays Doris (the girl with a mother who can turn “supportive” into a bad word), did not go on to great things in the performing arts after her next film, Grease 2. The breathtaking Antonia Franceschi plays Hilary, a transfer student dancer who just about dominates every frame she's in. Parker knows it, and doesn't fight it. She left the movies for a career with the New York City Ballet for a number of years.


 

Image: 7/8   NOTE: The below Blu-ray captures were ripped directly from the Blu-ray disc.
The first number indicates a relative level of excellence compared to other Blu-ray video discs on a ten-point scale. The second number places this image along the full range of DVD and Blu-ray discs.

I was very surprised by the look of this transfer, which is considerably more saturated and vivid than I remembered it. That said, my memory is nearly 30 years old, but the image I have had in my head was dramatically softer, grainier and thinner. So I suppose it came as a pleasant surprise to find a transfer of such snap and clarity. Except for the runaway black crush, doubtless to increase contrast, there isn’t much to criticize about the transfer. The transition from naturally grainy film to Blu-ray is relatively seamless, without enhancement (except for the crush) or artifacts, and I found no distracting debris or scratches. On a large front projection system it comes out very nice, actually.

 

CLICK EACH BLU-RAY CAPTURE TO SEE ALL IMAGES IN FULL 1920X1080 RESOLUTION
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Audio & Music: 3/8
Alas, if only the audio were nearly as good. But even in its uncompressed format, the audio is flat, canned and compressed. While timbres are recognizable, and dialogue is clear enough to be understood, hardly an instrument, speaking or singing voice has the remotest sense of texture. When the action moves from indoors to outdoors or from one room to the other, there isn’t the slightest attempt to compensate or to make real the effect. The big title song, which was once a kind of music video itself, now feels like it has a dynamic range of maybe 5 dB. Maybe. And observe how the music coming from the speakers on top of Mr. Martelli's cab doesn't change one iota when one of the speakers is torn off. I see from the IMDB that the original track in 70 mm was 6-track. What happened! If this audio mix is a bona fide representation of the original, I am embarrassed of behalf of the sound designer.

 

Operations: 2
The low score is deserved because of the audio/video commentary. What is needed, but not present, is a separate chapter stop menu for the "branched" clips of cast members. As it is, you have to watch the movie in its entirety in this format with no knowledge of when, where or if the next clip will come. Alternatively, you could watch these clips – twelve of them from five of the cast, averaging a little under two minutes in length – one at a time, after which the menu has to reset. There is no Play All function.

 

 

Extras: 4
Alan Parker has one of those soft-spoken British voices that is at once articulate and engaging. Fortunately what he has to say provides a wealth of information about the project, retrospectively covering casting, locations, concept, photography and bios on the featured players. He fills nearly all of the two hours plus and, if you have selected the option, from time to time and without warning Lee Curreri, Laura Dean, Gene Anthony Ray, and Maureen Teefy reflect on their experience in video inserts while the movie remains on Pause so we are told. From the look of the actors, these interviews were recorded a good twenty years or so after the movie, but it would have been nice if they were dated. The two promo featurettes ("On-Location" and "Field Trip") look at the real High School of Performing Arts between clips of the feature film. These two segments plus the cast interviews are presented in standard definition, most often in 4:3.
 

Bottom line: 7
Warner Home Video released this movie on Region 1 DVD this past September with identical extra features and a music CD (a nice plus), but so far, no word of a high-def edition for Region A - thus the advisability of this edition from the U.K., which is really more recommendable than the various low scores suggest. It is presently being offered by Amazon.co.uk for less than the Region 1 DVD.

Leonard Norwitz
December 26th, 2009

 

 

 

About the Reviewer: I first noticed that some movies were actually "films" back around 1960 when I saw Seven Samurai (in the then popular truncated version), La Strada and The Third Man for the first time. American classics were a later and happy discovery.

My earliest teacher in Aesthetics was Alexander Sesonske, who encouraged the comparison of unlike objects. He opened my mind to the study of art in a broader sense, rather than of technique or the gratification of instantaneous events. My take on video, or audio for that matter – about which I feel more competent – is not particularly technical. Rather it is aesthetic, perceptual, psychological and strongly influenced by temporal considerations in much the same way as music. I hope you will find my musings entertaining and informative, fun, interactive and very much a work in progress.


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