In 1980, Director Alan Parker made a film called ''Fame,'' about talented young people in New York City's High School for the Performing Arts.
The title song, sung electrically by Irene Cara, said it all: ''I'm gonna live forever. I'm gonna learn how to fly.''
Just last week, a new edition of the film by director and choreographer Kevin Tancharoen opened, and it's entertaining, but it's unlikely to live forever, and at best, may learn how to limp.
The new young performers who portray the students of our largest city's finest young performing artists, are very talented. But imagine a fine race car, used only to back out of a garage. A first rate performance involves both a gifted performer and an outstanding piece of music, theater, dance, or whatever. That second step is sadly missing here.
I recently saw the new ''Fame.'' I'd like to tell you some things about it, and some thoughts it produced:
The original film was a work of fiction, set in the High School for the Performing Arts. That was an old and not wonderfully equipped building which stretched through the block between W. 45th St., and W. 46th St., in downtown Manhattan. It's about a block west of Times Square.
One of the things which drives educators crazy in our country, is the fact that our society cannot decide what it wants our schools to do. If you encourage your best students to learn and develop at their maximum rate, you will end up with some students who know more and have more training than your other students.
If you teach all your students the same things in the same manner, at the same speed, your most talented students are likely to know less and to have less skill experience than top students who have been encouraged to move ahead of their classmates, though their least-talented classmates probably know more, on the average.
We seem to prefer to blame teachers when they can't accomplish both goals, rather than choosing one goal or the other and living with the disadvantages which go with virtually any decision.
I've often quoted radio host Garrison Keillor, who describes his home town in Minnesota as a place where all the men are beautiful, all the women are strong, and all the children are above average. The point of the joke, in case some have missed it, is that it is a mathematical fact that half of all children must be below average. That's what average means. It doesn't mean all children can't succeed - they can. But, we ought to say what we mean.
Teachers do not teach their students in a vacuum. If a student has his own computer, if his parents have taken him to live in Europe for part of his childhood, if the walls of his home are lined with thousands of books, if Dad takes him regularly to visit a university's atom smasher or Mom works for a publisher and the greatest authors in the world often come by his house for lunch, he's going to have an advantage over his classmates.
New York City has probably the most diverse and extensive collection of performing artists in the world. Many of them have children who study in the city's school system. Those children have access to instruments, to literature, to access to performances and to the people who are capable of creating, financing, and facilitating those performances.
The city has created a number of specialty high schools, designed to collect together young people who are already gifted in certain areas of learning, and moving them at a speed which is reasonable for them, although that rate is beyond the abilities of the average student.
The Bronx High School of Science, for example, accepts only their top few applicants in sciences. The Fiorella LaGuardia High School of Music, Art, and the Performing Arts accepts the top 200 applicants from a pool of thousands of applications.
In 1980, that school was located where the original film said it was - a block from Times Square, in an old and poorly-equipped building.
Christopher Gore's script chooses a few students, and follows then through five periods in their education: auditions, when they would presumably be in eighth grade, then freshman, sophomore, junior and senior years.
The film portrays accurately the fact that students in this select high school are subject both to all the usual agonies of young people, as well as the special agonies of preparing to work in a profession which is extremely arbitrary. Some of them have parents who don't support their professional goals.
Some have personal situations which force them to earn money, at the cost of giving up performing opportunities. Some are very talented, but physically handicapped or unattractive. They live in a huge city, where the nice man down the street doesn't know who they are, and won't be around to caution them that the people with whom they're spending time aren't likely to be dependable.
Probably the hardest lesson any young performer has to learn, is that he has to accommodate his talents and his experience to the opportunities he's offered. He may be the most talented Hamlet who ever walked the stage, but if nobody is presenting a production of ''Hamlet,'' right now, he'd better be prepared to play other parts.
He may be the greatest dancer in history, and be able to kick higher and turn faster than anyone else, but if he kicks higher and turns faster, he spoils the unison of the scene - it's his fault that it doesn't look good - and he needs to rein himself in, or be fired.
The film was spread too thin, trying to portray too many events in too many people's lives, but it made us care about the individuals, and to understand both why they did the things they did, and why they shouldn't have done so. The film was rated R, because young performing artists need to deal with elements such as being expected to perform nude scenes, and being offered drugs, and experiences which may never arrive to tempt the average person.
The newly opened version of the film is set in a very different time than the original. The modern audience has seen all three versions of ''High School Musical,'' for example. We've sat through dozens of shows involving people who are talented and ambitious, and who struggle to win competitions in which the judge who gets in the most insidious insults earns the most money.
Screenwriter Allison Burnett seems to miss the point that the original film was a drama about the lives of young people who were struggling in a difficult situation. She seems to be writing about characters we know little or nothing about, as an excuse to get them to perform some big production numbers.
Either she doesn't know that the school in question has changed its name and moved from Times Square to modern and excellent facilities in Lincoln Center, adjacent to the Metropolitan Opera and the Juilliard School, or she doesn't think it matters enough to include it.
Like the 1980 film, the actors who portray the students are too old. Performers in their mid to late twenties have different kinds of problems than students who are between ages 13 and 18, which the characters are supposed to be, and asking a 28-year-old actor to portray the struggles of a 13-year-old student, is a recipe for inadequacy.
In both films, some of the featured students make it through the school and some either drop out or are eliminated, but the audience for the earlier film feel exhilarated for those who succeed and feel a sense of loss for those who fail. In the new film we just observe and aren't expected to care much, either way.
Probably the greatest difference between the two films is that in the original, even those who don't make it are talented, and they still have to fight to compete with their classmates, to the very end, while in the contemporary film, even those who are eliminated are roughly on a par with everyone else, we never see them try and fail, and they are portrayed front and center in the big production numbers, where no professional director would have ever placed them.
One of the most thrilling things about witnessing a class in a good quality professional training program, is watching a student give a performance which is gripping and exciting, then listen to the instructor's advice, and then seeing the same student give a performance which is vastly better.
The teachers in the new film are familiar faces. Megan Mullally plays a sympathetic and inspiring singing teacher, which is a far cry from her familiar role as the chirpy-voiced Karen Walker in the series ''Will and Grace.'' Her big scene involves her character taking her students to a karaoke night, to give them valuable experience of dealing with an audience who may be drunk and may be seeking to heckle and embarrass performers.
One of her students insists that she sing a number, and she chooses an unfamiliar torch song from Rodgers and Hart's second or third tier of compositions, then gives a teary account of why she gave up the stage for her career as a teacher. She sings well, although it's not the ''stop the show'' performance the script suggests it is, and her story of why she gave up has the same amount of pathos as though she were explaining why she ordered chocolate instead of strawberry. Mullally deserves better.
Kelsey Grammer plays a small role as a piano instructor, although unlike Mullally's success in shedding a familiar character, one finds oneself trying not to picture the pompous Frasier Crane in the role. It's a case in which a less familiar actor would have met the demands of the role more successfully.
Grammer's former co-star, Bebe Neuwirth, whose character Lilith is a classic, is far more successful as a dance teacher who believes it part of her responsibilities to tell students if she simply doesn't believe they have a future in the arts.
The student who gives the most riveting performance is Naturi Naughton, who plays a student whose parents have planned a career for her as a concert pianist, but who wants to sing hip hop. She gets the lead in every production number, and she deserves it, but I find it unlikely that the vocal department gives away all their leading roles to a student from the piano department who feels like doing something different.
Collins Pennie is an outstanding singer and dancer, but his interactions with teacher Charles S. Dutton are entirely too ''Tell me the deepest real tragedies in your life, and I'll tell you why you need to accept them and just let the audience see all your weaknesses and embarrassments.'' Something like that could get a guy fired.
The new film seems to be made with the idea that an R rating shuts out too many young ticket buyers, but instead of portraying harsh reality in a less explicit manner, it seems to just gloss everything over and seem sweet, like ''High School Musical.''
The new film isn't bad. It's entertaining. But, it's 10 steps weaker than the original, which is a shame.
I certainly don't urge you not to see it, but I suggest that those who love the original, lower their expectations before they see the new version.
Sometimes in the arts, you do something wonderful, and nobody comes to see it. The Buffalo Theatre Alliance is joining with more than 600 companies, across the U.S. to let the population see just how wonderful they are.
Throughout the next two weeks, a number of theaters are inviting the public to see a performance, absolutely free of charge. Each performing company may choose its own dates for offering the free tickets, so you should check the website at www.theatrealliance of buffalo.com, for the company which most interests you.
Companies in Buffalo who will be offering free tickets in the near future include Ujima Theatre Company, Jewish Repertory Theatre, Kavinoky Theatre, New Phoenix Theatre on the Park, Irish Classical Theatre Company, Theatre of Youth, Road Less Travelled Productions, and MusicalFare.
National statistics demonstrate that 80 percent of those who accept free tickets, return to see live theatre within a short time of the free performance. See for yourself, with no risk but the time and the drive to Buffalo, what all the fuss is about.
Film buffs are invited to participate in the Buffalo Film Festival, in coming weeks. If you've always dreamed of attending better-known festivals in Cannes, New York City, or Toronto, you can get a taste of the experience in Buffalo.
There will be 16 films in the festival. Each individual ticket costs $10. Buy a ticket to all 16 for $100 - a $60 saving. If you can't catch that many, consider a six-pack: six tickets for $50.
Each film will be shown once only. Showings will take place at either the Market Arcade Film and Arts Center, across Main St. from Shea's Performing Arts Center in the downtown Theater District, or at the North Park Theater, which is at 1428 Hertel Ave., in Buffalo, or at the Ellicott Square Building.
The first showing will be Friday at 7 p.m. See the world premiere of footage from the films of Charlie Chaplin, which have lost for decades, especially ''City Lights.''
Oct. 17 at 2 p.m., see a triple feature: ''It Came from Outer Space,'' in 3-D, a Buck Rodgers Short, and a Bouncing Ball cartoon. An exclusive interview with Bradbury will also be shown.
Oct. 18 at 3 p.m., see ''The Living Nickelodeon,'' a re-creation of the earliest filmgoing experience.
For more information, go by computer to tickets/bpo.org/public/loader.asp, or check the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's website.