Earlier this month, my singing, dancing 14-year-old daughter became one of 859 freshmen at LaGuardia High School of the Arts in New York. Though the name LaGuardia may only conjure up the chronically chaotic airport in Queens, you may recognize the school by one of its earlier names, the High School of Performing Arts—otherwise known as the "Fame" school, where students dance on the cafeteria tables and stop midtown traffic with their unbridled enthusiasm for 20th-century disco-pop.
So, of course, this meant one thing: It was time for me to rewatch one of my favorite movies, which I hadn't seen in decades.
When "Fame" came out in 1980, I was too young to see it in the theaters. It was rated R for its gritty, realistic depiction of inner-city teen life (including disturbing plots about molestation and exploitation, an abortion monologue, and an endless barrage of F-bombs). But, a year or two later, when the very first video-rental store opened in my Long Island town, I raced to the counter and asked, "Do you have 'Fame'?" It was the first movie I ever rented to play on my top-loading VHS machine.
That movie was a touchstone for me. I saw it at a time when I was first developing my lifelong passion for musical theater, and it showed there were funny, offbeat, nerdy kids who cared more about Stephen Sondheim than Sheena Easton, who would rather sift through the scripts at the Drama Bookshop than flip through Seventeen magazine (though I admit I happily did both). I joined my school chorus and performed in every play, hoping to re-create my own "Fame" experience—I even attended a theater camp, where a few of the counselors actually attended Performing Arts and had appeared in the movie.
So, now that my daughter was attending the actual school from the movie—a dream I was never able to achieve due to both geography and a lack of talent—we decided to stream the movie to see how it held up. I admit I was worried: Would it be cheesy? Would it be unrealistic? Would its 1980s attitudes seem hopelessly racist and sexist?
Well, I am happy to report, the movie does hold up as a piece of art, as a dark and honest depiction of kids struggling to follow their passions against some pretty steep odds.
First of all, there's that scene in the cafeteria. It remains a masterpiece. Unlike the extras in say, "Glee" or "High School Musical', these kids have bad teeth, bad skin, an array of body shapes and sizes, a range of skin tones (many were played by actual students from Performing Arts and Music & Art, the two high schools that merged in 1984 to become LaGuardia). The scene starts with the usual noisy chaos of a crowded cafeteria: lunch ladies in hairnets scooping glop onto trays; kids arguing, chewing gum and making out. But since this is an arts school, there are also dancers stretching and spinning, and musicians practicing scales. The ambient hum and thrum soon takes on a steady rhythm, and Bruno, the misunderstood electro-pop pioneer, sits at a piano and lays down a catchy riff, which the other musicians soon pick up. Pretty soon, the entire cafeteria is jamming and Irene Cara's Coco ad-libs the lyrics to "Hot Lunch Jam" on the spot: "Shady Sadie, serving lady, don't pay her no mind, no, she'll take every dime, she's got a one-a-day lunch, good for all the bunch, yeah, hot lunch!" (Admit it, you're singing along right now, aren't you?)
The musical numbers all have a similar sense of imperfect, impromptu realism; the big numbers seem less choreographed than created up on the spot with a few stunning dance moves mixed in with kids simply jamming and shaking their Koch-era booties.
Speaking of Koch-era New York, even if you care not a whit for the travails of a bunch of artsy kids, the movie is worth revisiting just for the scenes of a pre-Giuliani New York, when large swaths of the city were still a filthy, rat-infested dump. Feeling nostalgic for a grittier Times Square? Check out the scene where Coco meets a sleazy producer while eating at Howard Johnson's. Watch the kids take in a midnight show of "Rocky Horror" at the late, lamented 8th Street Playhouse. In scenes with the illiterate but gifted dancer Leroy walking through his neighborhood, you see the city as a literal trash heap dotted with flaming garbage cans. Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.
Here's what made me cringe, though: Watching a movie with 1980s values through 2017 eyes can be painful—but also eye-opening and grateful for the tentative progress we've made. When Montgomery, the melancholy acting student, tells his friend Doris that he's gay and therefore knows he can never be truly happy, she worries that telling people will make him a pariah at the school. Today, of course, there is an active and proud LGBT community at LaGuardia. Another sign of the unenlightened early '80s? In the end credits, cameo roles are listed as "dance student," "drama student" and … "Oriental student." Oof. Did no one at the time think it was a bad idea to single out ONE group to be identified only by their race and not their talent?
Also, I was stunned that the filmmakers felt the need to have not one, not two, but three scenes of topless teenage girls. The scene where Coco is duped into taking off her top for the sleazy fake producer is excruciating, but at least it makes a point (and it was the scene I always fast-forwarded through as a kid), but the two scenes in which boys peek at naked boobies in the girls' changing room? Completely unnecessary, tone-deaf and clearly an effort to lure teen boys into what was otherwise a serious, Oscar-winning film.
For my daughter, watching the movie was like watching a historical documentary that had a few flashes of what she now knows as her school, but was mostly unrecognizable. For good or bad, over the last decade, LaGuardia has made grades equal to talent for admission; a failing student such as Leroy would never earn a spot there, no matter how "wicked" his dance moves were (and he certainly would have been suspended for trashing an entire hallway full of glass shelves after his teacher calls him out for not being able to read). Instead of a cramped, decrepit theater-district building, the school is now housed in a giant building near Lincoln Center, with snack machines, escalators and multiple performance spaces. In "Fame," there seems to be a core group of 30 or so kids who have all their classes together and create a close friend group. At today's LaGuardia, there are nearly 3,000 kids roaming the halls.
We are still waiting to see if those 3,000 kids dance on the cafeteria tables. Fingers crossed. It would be my dream come true, even if I only get to experience it vicariously through my daughter. Lucky kid.