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Column Fri Sep 25 2009

Fame and The Providence Effect


Films like this remake of Fame are frustrating for so many reasons, chief among them is that it's clear they aren't trying particularly hard to be great. Contrary to foggy memories, the 1980 version of Fame isn't that great a movie. It's sort of the prequel to A Chorus Line, showing a group of dancers, singers, musicians, actors, and other artistic types at a high school for the performing arts, where a group of teachers ply them with skills, push them harder than they've ever been pushed, and load them up with all of the cliches about effort and talent and placing the art before the celebrity they may or may not achieve. If even this plot description makes you roll your eyes, imagine the experience of watching the film.

But here's the thing: Fame (2009) features a group of largely unknown younger actors doing some pretty incredible stuff between the lame and obvious stories. The songs are catchy, the singing is often lovely, the dancing is impressive, and the acting... hey, did I mention the catchy tunes? What helps to keep Fame from sinking under the weight of its own self-importance are the older actors playing the teachers. I hate to say this — because I'm always looking for fresh faces in any film — but seeing familiar faces in this movie made me breathe a sigh of relief. Bebe Neuwirth plays a dance teacher, Kelsey Grammer a piano instructor (yes, both Frasier and Lilith are in this movie), Charles S. Dutton is the acting teacher, and Megan Mullally does a nice job as a singing coach who actually bothers to bond with her students. Original Fame alum Debbie Allen appears in a couple of scenes as the school principal.

The film seems to go out of its way to provide as multi-cultural a mix of kids as humanly possible. Black, white, Asian, Latino, they're all here on Noah's Benetton School of the Arts. And each come with their own set of anxieties and shortcomings they must conquer. The white girl (Kay Panabaker, who reminds me of a younger Amber Tamblyn) is a little nervous to do her thing in front of crowds; the black girl (Naturi Naughton) is a classical pianist who really wants to sing R&B; the hottie (the also white Kherington Payne) is a sexy and talented dancer whose biggest flaw is that she possesses no personality; another girl (Anna Maria Perez de Tagle, whose name would lead me to believe she's Latino, but I thought she was Asian while watching the film) is tempted by a job before she graduates; the Hispanic boy wants to be a music producer and learns a hard lesson about the music industry; the black guy (Collins Pennie from Half Nelson and Prom Night) wants to be a rapper-actor; the white guy (Paul McGill) thinks he's a filmmaker; and the other white guy (Asher Book) is can sing like an angel and is dating the first white girl. The problem with Fame isn't that all of these characters (and there are more) get mixed up in the heavily populated mix; the problem is that each character so clearly fills a niche that you can almost piece the cast together like a puzzle with no group left unrepresented, even if it means character underdevelopment is guaranteed.

But the question remains, Are people coming to see Fame for rich and fully drawn characters? I'm guessing not. They are coming to watch the alleged development of talent. They are coming to witness the birthplace of tomorrow's hit makers, acting giants and dancing greats. And they're coming to see a large number of these students fall short of their dreams. That's an element of this film I was surprised to see addressed. Some of these kids don't quite have what it takes to become great in their respective fields. Neuwirth gets to deliver that message to one student, and it's one of the few solid scenes in the film. Still, in the end, Fame becomes a slightly more believable but no less annoying and unholy version of High School Musical, which I actually found more entertaining because it embraced the musical genre so completely. Fame would very much like to be a musical. You can almost feel the film itself bursting on its reel to let the characters break into song and dance whenever they feel like. Instead what we get is a small number of musical numbers that occur very politely in the context of the film. With the exception of the senior graduation performance, which briefly seems to ignore the small confines of the auditorium stage.

Beyond the lack of plot beyond simply following these students through four years of schooling, my biggest sticking point with Fame is that most of the younger actors are terrible. Dancer Kherington Payne is almost laughably bad (but she's smoking hot, so we'll forgive her). Most of the actors look like they were brought in to audition for one of those Sprite commercials where people drink soda and start doing backflips and smiling. That said, Naturi Naghton is someone whose singing and acting are worth revisiting. She's a gifted performer stuck in this tepid movie. She's so good in fact, that she makes those around her look five times as mediocre. Oh, and if you're wondering if there's a scene equivalent to the "Coco being pressured into undressing before the camera" scene in the original movie, there is, but it's not nearly as fun-creepy. Yeah, I said it.

I didn't walk into Fame expecting great things. And my expectations were soundly met. The best thing on director Kevin Tancharoen's filmography is a pre-breakdown Britney Spears live special that ran on TV a few years ago, so his history of dealing with real human beings is limited. Parts of the film feel like music videos, while others feel like a CW drama, with all of the emotional depth that that implies. There's ample potential with this subject matter, but until a film is willing to be honest about what really goes on at schools filled with artistic types, the results will always feel sterile and dishonest. That's right, I'm looking for the true story of hormones raging, cutthroat competition, hedonistic behavior, and a large group of dancers whose best options after graduating will be to star in the next Lil' Wayne video. Tell the truth people, and then maybe we can talk.

The Providence Effect

The statistics speak for themselves. One-hundred percent of the graduates of the Providence St. Mel on Chicago's gang-ruled West Side go on to college, and that's been the case for 30 years. In the last seven years, half of the school's grads have gone on to first tier or Ivy League colleges and universities. What the hell is principal Paul Adams III doing at that school, you may ask? The answer can be found in this inspiring — if not completely all-telling — documentary that follows several years in the life of this remarkable school, which should be serving as a role model institution for the entire American education system.

Adams has many strategies, chief among them is that he expects parents to be active participants in their children's education, including requiring weekly meetings between parents and teachers. There is compensation (not necessarily money, but reward) for good behavior and grades. And every aspect of schooling — from the youngest first grader to a graduating senior — is infused with getting these kids into college. It's strange but encouraging to watch a first grader talk about his or her future, and to have the teachers not so much instruct, but lead a group discussion on the lesson at hand. What's frustrating about the Providence St. Mel model is that nothing we see seems that extreme. You watch the machine in operation, and you can't help but ask, "Why isn't this the way teaching is done nationwide, especially when the results are irrefutable?" Often with documentaries about a socially relevant topic, I get frustrated a the filmmakers for pointing out flaws in the system without really laying out possible ways to solve them. The Providence Effect is all about answers. It couldn't be more perfectly explained and illustrated.

The gravy on the film is Adams himself, who is a fascinating man with a enthusiasm and matter-of-fact way of looking at his world that is beyond refreshing. With a history in the Civil Rights movement (he moved to Chicago from Alabama after being blacklisted for his activist ways), he started out as a guidance counselor at St. Mel when it was still run by the archdiocese. But when the church decided to close the school, Adams and a group of investors bought the school outright and turned it into an independently run operation. More recently the St. Mel model has been converted to the public school sector with the 2006 opening of Providence Englewood Charter School. The transition with now-principal Jeanette DiBella was not an easy one, but, boy, is it fascinating to watch. The system demands as much from the teachers, parents and students, who all work toward this admirable common goal.

What director Rollin Binzer (Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones) does not do is provide any statements from detractors of this system. Maybe there aren't any, but that's something we need to hear. Also, we get countless testimonies from prominent alumni, all of whom have gone on to great success in the world. But what is never said is exactly how Adams manages to get that 100 percent placement record. My guess is that anyone not on track for college is expelled from the school. You can't have any failures in your organization if you kick out those who are struggling before graduation. The subject is so blatantly not brought up that it becomes a massive elephant at the center of this film. I know for a fact that Adams has been asked these exact questions, and he's masterful at skirting the issue.

Still, Binzer's access is remarkable, and clearly something about the way things happen at Providence St. Mel is working. The fact that the U.S. Secretary of Education hasn't simply adopted these teaching methods across the nation seems criminal, and the fact that both St. Mel and our president are Chicago-based underscores the travesty. I realize this film and topic may not seem as explosive or interesting as a film by Michael Moore or one about Vogue magazine or Mike Tyson or LeBron James, but I found portions of The Providence Effect jaw-droppingly perfect, and you should make every effort to check this film out. It opens September 25 in Chicago (at the Landmark Century Center Cinema), New York, Los Angeles, Washington, DC and Newark, NJ, and will hopefully expand after its initial run. If you have a child in school or know a teacher, The Providence Effect is a must see. It will make you angry at the state of most schools in America, while inspiring you to initiate change in the way we educate our children.

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Rudra Banerji / September 28, 2009 12:03 PM

Our current Secretary of Education (Arne Duncan) was also the Chicago Public School CEO for the last 5 years as well.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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