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FAME – Michael Gore

December 2, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

MOVIE MUSIC UK CLASSICS

Original Review by Craig Lysy

David De Silva, a New York City talent manager, happened to take in the 1976 production of “A Chorus Line”. The song “Nothing” triggered a creative spark when it referenced the prestigious New York High School of Performing Arts. He envisioned a film, which would speak to the dreams, trials and tribulations of ambitious young adolescent students trying to break in to the business and launch their careers. De Silva travelled to Florida the next year where he met famed playwright Christopher Gore. The two connected, he pitched his ideas, story and characters, and then hired Gore to draft a script with a working title of “Hot Lunch” for $5,000. De Silva was pleased with the script, sold the project to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer executives, who authorized $400,000 to acquire the screen rights. De Silva and Alan Marshall would produce with a generous $8 million budget and Alan Parker was hired to direct.

Parker made modifications to the script, which significantly darkened the narrative, preferring to emphasize the pain and disappointments suffered by the students. Parker also changed the title of the film to “Fame” while in production after he noticed that a pornographic film showing on 42nd Street was also titled “Hot Lunch”, later discovering that it was also slang for oral sex! Given the setting, Parker sought young actors for his cast. Irene Cara was hired play the lead character Coco Hernandez, and was joined by newcomers Lee Curren, Laura Dean, Antonia Franceschi, Paul McCrane, Barry Miller, and Maureen Teefy. The story was set-in modern-day New York City at the prestigious New York High School of Performing Arts, and follows the students from admission to graduation, exploring their aspirations and fears, as well as their triumphs and failures. The film was a massive commercial success, ultimately becoming a cultural phenomenon, earning $42 million at the box office. Critical acclaim was mixed with most commending the musical numbers, while criticizing the underlying drama of the student’s lives. It nevertheless secured four Academy Award nominations, winning two for Best Score and Best Song.

Parker initially sought Giorgio Moroder to score the film, based on their successful collaboration with Midnight Express in 1978, but was turned down. He then offered the job to Jeff Lynne, the lead performer of the band Electric Light Orchestra, but was again turned down. So, he gambled and hired newcomer Michael Gore (no relation to the playwright), a musician and songwriter who would be providing the musical numbers and scoring his first film. Parker was insistent that Gore’s musical numbers not be dubbed, but instead filmed live. For the titular musical number Gore and lyricist Dean Pitchford struggled for a month to come up with the right lyrics, ultimately improvising with “I’m going to live forever” and also the back-up vocalists singing “Remember! Remember! Remember!”. Parker also insisted that the film end with a massive musical number, which brought together the three stylistic elements of gospel, rock and classical. This signature piece would also showcase each of the individual actors – their moment in the sun. Gore’s effort was ground-breaking as it was the first time in Academy Awards history that two songs were nominated in the Best Song Category; the title song “Fame” and “Out Here On My Own”. It was also one of the first films to utilize a digital audio soundtrack. Lastly, the album’s cue presentation is not sequenced in film context order, so my review correctly reordered cues so the film’s narrative could be better understood.

The roll of the opening credits offers white script on a black background, unsupported by music. We open the film with a soliloquy by Montgomery who expresses a lack of confidence and estrangement from his mother. What follows is a montage of our eight students auditioning to gain enrollment. The various source music is not found on the album. Seventeen minutes into the film we have our first set piece, the musical number “Red Light” written by Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford, vocals by Linda Clifford. It is a syncopated funky dance number with an infectious rhythm, which really propels the scene. All does not turn out well as we see dance aspirant Shirley being upstaged by her friend Leroy, who she brought only to support her. Afterwards salt is rubbed into an open wound when she is denied admission, but Leroy is accepted. Later we see Naomi being informed that her daughter Doris has been accepted and an ecstatic Ralph running home through the slums with a paper confirming his acceptance. We see “Freshman Year” display on the screen and the students all making their way to school through the streets of New York City supported by the film’s second musical piece, “Dogs In The Yard written by Dominic Bugatti and Frank Musker, vocals by Paul McCrane. The aspirational pop song gently carries each of our students on their first steps to realizing their hopes and dreams. The music is comforting and perfectly supports Parker’s narrative.

An extended montage follows of our students being exposed to the imposing demands of their curriculum. After an energetic piano driven prelude, we launch into the film’s third musical number, “Hot Lunch Jam,” written by Michael Gore, Robert Coleberry and Lesley Gore, vocals by Irene Cara. It continues the funky, irreverent vibe of the opening piece as we see the students all dancing with diegetic horns and sax joining the piano to drive the fun. This piece is a lot of fun and Gore really provides a kinetic punch to Parker’s narrative. Another montage follows, which reveals individual and group ballet, followed by piano lessons, all supported by traditional classical pieces. All is not well when Leroy is exposed by Ms. Sherwood as being illiterate, causing him to storm out of the classroom and in a rage destroy several glass encased book shelves. The scene is supported with the film’s fourth musical piece, “Never Alone,” written by Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford, vocals by the Contemporary Gospel Chorus of the High School of Music and Art. Leroy is enraged and feels humiliated and isolated. Gore, in a brilliant example of juxtaposition, supports Leroy’s rage with a gospel chorus offering the comforting words that you are never truly alone in that God never gives up on anyone. If you focus on the visual rage you miss the nuance of the music. This is a perfect example where to truly appreciate the music, you must see it in film context.

In a new scene we see Coco relating to Bruno her aspirations. This gives way to another montage of students training in both dance and music. We segue in “Sophomore Year” where our students begin to refine their skills with a montage of scenes related to dramatic acting, ballet and music. We come to the film’s fifth musical number, a great score highlight, when Bruno’s cab driver dad pulls up, puts a cassette tape in his cab’s player and then blasts out over a loud speaker a score highlight, the titular song, “Fame” written by Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford, vocals by Irene Cara. The students empty out of the school, begin dancing and take over the street. The celebratory energy and aspirations of the music and lyrics achieve a perfect synergy. I what I believe to be a masterstroke Gore captures the animating spirit of Parker’s narrative and just creates one of the most joyous moments in cinematic history. What follows is a catharsis as one by one the students in a drama exercise must lay themselves bare and vulnerable by relating a private unshared pain. We then launch into another montage of the students demonstrating a growing sophistication in dance, music and dramatic acting. This brings us to the film’s sixth musical set piece “Out Here On My Own” written by Michael Gore and Lesley Gore, vocals by Irene Cara. This song is soulful, questioning and yearning, achieving a beautiful confluence of music, lyrics and Cara’s vocals as she sings for Bruno.

The screen displays “Junior Year” and we shift scenes to Ralph being angry and distraught that his five-year-old sister may have been abused by a transient, yelling at the parish priest and his mother that she does not need the “Holy Ghost” but instead medical attention. Later he tearfully spills his guts to Doris and Montgomery on his fatherless childhood. After Doris’ comforting embrace turns into passionate kissing, an uncomfortable Montgomery leaves. Later Doris and her mother have a falling out over her desire to abandon her heritage and remake herself in a new persona called Dominique. This brings us to the film’s seventh song, “Is It Okay If I Call You Mine?” written and performed by Paul McCrane. Montgomery has been abandoned by Doris, who is in love with Ralph. He feels sad and isolated and with his guitar sings a song, so full of yearning, unable to bear the loneliness of his existence. The music and lyrics are profoundly moving, and offer a poignant testament.

We change scenes to the theater where the students are actively participating as the audience in a viewing of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show”. Doris unleashes the shackles of her life and joins the dancing on stage, finally liberated. The next day they meet up at the restaurant with graduate Michael who has returned from Hollywood and is waiting tables, unable to make it as an actor. The screen displays “Senior Year”, where one by one we see the student’s dreams crashing on the rocks. First, we see Ralph garnering success as a stand-up comic at the Catch A Rising Star nightclub. He gets caught up with the wrong crowd, parties too heavily, which is upsetting to Doris and Montgomery. After Ralph bombs at another club, we find him devastated and bitter in his dressing room. Montgomery comes to him, and tenderly consoles him supported by the film’s eighth musical piece, “Ralph and Monty”, a piece for solo piano written and performed by Michael Gore. The music is warm, comforting and hidden within the notes we discern a kernel of hope. As Montgomery rests his chin on Ralph’s shoulder, we see in Ralph’s demeanor that he is comforted. The pairing of music and acting in this scene is very tender and moving. We shift scenes to a crying Hillary who had been sleeping with Leroy, is now pregnant, and is at an abortion clinic. She relates her plans to find her fortune elsewhere in San Francisco as a prima ballerina to prove the school wrong about her abilities. We then segue to Coco who naively succumbs to a stranger’s flattery, agrees to do a screen test. After being coached to take off her blouse, she sobs when she discovers that she has been played, and that he films pornography. We next come to Leroy who has been offered a job as a dancer in Alvin Ailey’s dance company, which is conditioned that he graduates. Well Ms. Sherwood is flunking him and he inappropriately confronts her in the hospital outside the room of her dying husband. He sees her grief, has an epiphany, and comforts her.

We come now to the film’s conclusion, which supports the student’s celebratory graduation. Gore delivers the massive set piece musical finale, which Parker demanded with the film’s final musical number “I Sing The Body Electric” written by Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford, vocals by Irene Cara, Paul McCrane, Laura Dean, Traci Parnell and Eric Brockington. In a masterstroke of conception Gore achieves an inspiring synthesis of orchestra, rock, and gospel, which achieves a wondrous synergy. The music is a paean to the trials and tribulations of the students in quest of their dreams and offers the film’s emotional apogee, one the finest musical endings in cinematic history. We conclude magnificently with a grand orchestral flourish, which takes us into the roll of the End Credits, which sustains the music of the film’s final piece, with a reprise of the concluding chorus. This cue is not provided on the album.

Alan Parker’s film was well intentioned, yet in the final analysis flawed in its narrative. To a large extent it was Gore’s music, which held the disjointed narrative together, engaged the audience, and brought the struggles, aspirations and triumphs of these kids alive. Indeed, Michael Gore’s Fame resonated with the public, and unleashed a cultural phenomenon, which propelled it to a stunning and unexpected Oscar win over The Empire Strikes Back by John Williams. To this day the titular song “Fame” has rightfully earned its place as one of the greatest songs in cinematic history. The nomination of a second song for an Academy Award “Out Here On My Own” was ground-breaking and a testament to Gore’s mastery of his craft. My one criticism is that although Gore won the Oscar for Best Film Score, most of it has yet to be released. I believe a re-recording and expansion of the album to include the missing score elements is needed and long overdue. Overall, this is a fun, exciting and heartfelt song album that features the orchestral, rock and gospel idioms, achieving an inspired confluence, which soars in the film’s final musical number “I Sing The Body Electric”. I recommend you revisit this album and even better, watch it in film context to fully appreciate Gore’s brilliance.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the celebratory I Sing The Body Electric scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tG-wl2qqD7Y

Buy the Fame soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Fame (written by Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford, performed by Irene Cara) (5:14)
  • Out Here on My Own (written by Michael Gore and Lesley Gore, performed by Irene Cara) (3:11)
  • Hot Lunch Jam (written by Michael Gore, Lesley Gore, and Robert F. Colesberry, performed by Irene Cara) (4:10)
  • Dogs in the Yard (written by Dominic Bugatti and Frank Musker, performed by Paul McCrane) (3:13)
  • Red Light (written by Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford, performed by Linda Clifford) (6:10)
  • Is It Okay If I Call You Mine? (written and performed by Paul McCrane) (2:40)
  • Never Alone (written by Anthony Evans, performed by the Contemporary Gospel Chorus of the High School of Music and Art) (3:23)
  • Ralph and Monty (Dressing Room Piano) (written and performed by Michael Gore) (1:49)
  • I Sing the Body Electric (written by Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford, performed by Laura Dean, Irene Cara, Paul McCrane, Traci Parnell, and Eric Brockington) (4:59)

Running Time: 34 minutes 49 seconds

Polydor 800-034-2 (1980)

Music composed and arranged by Michael Gore. Recorded and mixed by Chuck Irwin. Edited by Norman Hollyn. Album produced by Michael Gore and Gil Askey.

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