Producer David De Silva conceived the premise in 1976, partially inspired by the musical A Chorus Line. He commissioned Gore to write the script, originally titled Hot Lunch, before selling it to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). After he was hired to direct the film, Parker rewrote the script with Gore, aiming for a darker and dramatic tone. The script's subject matter received criticism by the New York Board of Education, which prevented the production from filming in the actual High School of Performing Arts. The film was shot on location in New York City, with principal photography beginning in July 1979 and concluding after 91 days. Parker encountered a difficult filming process, which included conflicts with U.S. labor unions over various aspects of the film's production.
In New York City, a group of teenagers audition to study at the High School of Performing Arts, where they are sorted into three different departments: Drama, Music and Dance. Accepted in the Drama department are Montgomery MacNeil, a closeted homosexual, Doris Finsecker, a shy Jewish girl, and Ralph Garci, who succeeds after failed auditions for Music and Dance. In the Music department, Bruno Martelli is an aspiring keyboardist whose electronic equipment horrifies Mr. Shorofsky, a conservative music teacher. Lisa Monroe is accepted in the Dance department, despite having no interest in the subject. Coco Hernandez is accepted in all three departments because of her all-around talent. Leroy Johnson goes to the school, performing as part of a dance routine for an auditioning friend, but the dance teachers are more impressed by his talents than hers.
The students learn during their first day of classes that academics are weighed equally with performance. Doris, overwhelmed by the energy and spontaneity in the lunchroom, flees and meets Montgomery. As the year progresses, Coco tries to convince Bruno to book performing gigs with her. Doris befriends Montgomery, but worries that she is too ordinary against the colorful personalities of the other students. Leroy and his English teacher, Mrs. Sherwood, clash over his refusal to do homework. It is later revealed that Leroy is illiterate and ashamed to admit it. Bruno and his father argue over Bruno's reluctance to play his electronic music publicly. Miss Berg, the school's Dance teacher, warns Lisa that she is not working hard enough. Michael, a graduating senior, wins a prestigious scholarship and tells Doris that the William Morris Agency wants to send him out for auditions for television pilots.
A new student, Hilary van Doren, joins the school's Dance department and seduces Leroy. Bruno and Mr. Shorofsky debate the merits of traditional orchestras versus synthesized instruments. Bruno's father plays his music (the title song) outside the school, inspiring the student body to dance in the streets. As an acting exercise, the students are asked to divulge a painful memory. Montgomery discusses discovering his homosexuality, while coming out in front of his classmates; Doris relates her humiliation at being forced by her stage mother to sing at a child's birthday party; and Ralph tells of learning about the death of his idol Freddie Prinze. Miss Berg drops Lisa from the Dance program, and after seemingly considering suicide in a New York City Subway station, Lisa drops her dance clothes on the subway tracks and decides to join the Drama department.
Ralph and Doris discover their mutual attraction, but their growing intimacy leaves Montgomery feeling excluded. Hilary brings Leroy home, much to the shock of her father and stepmother. Ralph's young sister is attacked by a junkie and Ralph lashes out at his mother's attempts to comfort the child by taking her to the local Catholic church, instead of to a doctor. Doris begins to question her Jewish upbringing, changing her name to "Dominique DuPont" and straining the relationship with her mother. During a late-night showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the 8th Street Playhouse, Ralph encourages Doris to smoke marijuana. Intoxicated, Doris takes part in the stage show during the film's "Time Warp" musical number. The next day, she realizes that as an actress she can put on any personality she wants, but is sobered upon running into Michael, who is struggling as an actor and waiting tables.
Ralph performs stand-up comedy at Catch a Rising Star, where he garners some initial success. He falls into a hard-party lifestyle, which upsets Doris. Given a prime spot at another comedy club, he bombs after clashing with both Doris and Montgomery over his new lifestyle. Disgusted with himself, Ralph believes his career is over, but is comforted by Montgomery, who tells him that failure is a part of the entertainment business. Hilary, now pregnant, plans to have an abortion and move to California to take a position with the San Francisco Ballet company. Coco is approached in a diner by a man claiming to be a director; she naïvely goes to his apartment for a screen test, but discovers that he is an amateur pornographic film director. He manipulates her into taking her shirt off, as he films her sobbing. Leroy is offered a position in Alvin Ailey's dance company, but to be accepted he must graduate. He confronts Mrs. Sherwood outside her husband's hospital room and lashes out at her for giving him a failing grade. However, upon realizing that Mrs. Sherwood has her own problems, he comforts her. During graduation, the student body showcases their talents by performing an original song, "I Sing the Body Electric". The opening lines are sung by Lisa, Coco and Montgomery. Intercut with the performance are scenes of Leroy dancing and Bruno playing with a rock band, finally sharing his music with others.Students
In 1976, talent manager David De Silva attended a stage production of A Chorus Line and noticed that one of the musical numbers, "Nothing", had made a reference to the New York High School of Performing Arts. The musical inspired him to create a story detailing how ambition and rejection influence the lives of adolescent students. In 1977, De Silva travelled to Florida, where he met playwright Christopher Gore. He paid Gore $5,000 to draft a script titled Hot Lunch, and provided story ideas involving the plot and characters. De Silva took the project to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), which acquired the script for $400,000.
The Hot Lunch script was sent to Alan Parker after the release of his previous film Midnight Express (1978). He chose to work on the project as he wanted make his next film in the United States, and signed on as its director in February 1979. Parker met with De Silva in Manhattan, New York, where it was decided that he would draft his own script with Gore receiving sole screenwriting credit and Parker's colleague Alan Marshall being enlisted as a producer. Gore travelled to London, England, where he and Parker began work on a second draft script. Their new script became significantly darker than what De Silva had originally intended. De Silva said, "I was really motivated and interested in the joy of what the school represented for these kids, and [Parker] was really much more interested in where the pain was in going to the school, and so we had our little conflicts based on that area."
Parker relocated to Greenwich, Connecticut to begin pre-production work on the film. While working on the script, he interacted with many of the students attending the Performing Arts. Several students invited him to attend to attend a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) at the 8th Street Playhouse. Parker attended a weekend screening with Marshall, and the enthusiastic crowd inspired him to write a similar scene for the film, during which the character Doris Finsecker dances along to the musical number "Time Warp". During filming, Parker noticed that a pornographic film showing on 42nd Street was titled Hot Lunch. He was informed that the title was "New York slang for oral sex." In response, MGM offered several working titles before Parker titled the film Fame, naming it after the 1975 song performed by David Bowie.
Although Parker had promised to hold auditions for students attending the Performing Arts, the school was initially advised by the Board of Education to prevent the students from working on the film, fearing it would affect their studies. It was later announced that filming would occur during the summer when the students were not attending school. Parker distributed casting call advertisements at the Performing Arts school and the High School of Music & Art.
Parker and casting directors Margery Simkin and Howard Feuer spent four months of the film's pre-production searching for young performers to appear in the film. They held an open casting call at the Diplomat Hotel on 43rd Street, Manhattan, New York, where more than 2,000 people auditioned for various roles. Of the many students that Parker met at the Performing Arts, only Laura Dean, who plays Lisa Monroe, was cast in a principal role, while other students were cast as extras. The school's drama teacher Jim Moody was cast as Mr. Farell, and its music teacher Jonathan Strasser was cast as a conductor who leads an orchestra through Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's composition Eine kleine Nachtmusik. Music composer and actor Albert Hague secured the role of Performing Arts music teacher Mr. Shorofsky, as Parker wanted a veteran musician to play the part.
Irene Cara, a former student of the Performing Arts, was cast as Coco Hernandez. Parker was not impressed with Cara's musical audition, until after her recording sessions with the film's music composer Michael Gore. Gene Anthony Ray, who plays Leroy Johnson, was also a Performing Arts student but had been expelled from the school for disruptive behavior. Simkin had discovered Ray breakdancing on a street corner in Harlem before asking him to audition for a role in the film.
Lee Curreri, who was cast as Bruno Martelli, learned of the production while attending the Manhattan School of Music. During his audition, Paul McCrane performed an original song he had written, "Is It Okay If I Call You Mine?". McCrane secured the role of Montgomery MacNeil, and the song inspired Parker to include it in the film. Barry Miller, who achieved critical acclaim for his supporting role in Saturday Night Fever (1977), was cast as Ralph Garci, an aspiring actor and standup comic of Puerto Rican descent.
Maureen Teefy, an established actress of Irish descent, was cast as Doris Finsecker, a shy and uptight Jewish girl. De Silva disagreed with Teefy's casting, stating, "... I'd envisioned [Doris] as a 16-or 17-year-old Barbra Streisand from Brooklyn, and when [Parker] cast this Irish actress that was a trouble ... that was my only reservation; I really had envisioned she was a young Barbra Streisand, a Jewish girl." Parker and the casting department had difficulty finding an actress for the role of Hilary Van Doren. Antonia Franceschi, who had previously acted as a background dancer in the musical Grease (1978), secured the role based on the strength of her audition. Meg Tilly appears in her acting debut as a principal dancer. In his first credited screen role, Peter Rafelson, son of Bob Rafelson, appears as a principal musician and vocalist.
Principal photography began on July 9, 1979, with a budget of $8.5 million. Parker described shooting in New York City as a less than pleasurable experience due to the intense summer weather conditions. He also faced difficulties with U.S. labor union representatives who disapproved of the British crew members working on the film without permits. In order to gain work permits, Parker made an agreement with the unions that allowed local laborers to work on the film.
During filming, the crew and several cast members objected to cinematographer Michael Seresin and camera operator John Stanier's European style of single-source lighting, which involved the use of incense burners. In response, representatives of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) halted the production, and forbade Parker from using smoke on the set due to the noxious atmosphere it created.
The filmmakers had originally planned to shoot the film at the Performing Arts school, but were denied by the Board of Education over the content of the script. After consulting with Nancy Littlefield, the head of the New York City Mayor's Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting, Parker was granted a meeting with the Board's members, who explained that they were concerned with the script's profanity, sexual content and depictions of drug use. They were especially concerned with his depiction of Turkish prisons in Midnight Express. After the filmmakers expressed interest in moving the production to Chicago, Illinois, Littlefield reviewed abandoned-city properties and discovered two unused schools, Haaren High School and Performance Space 122. Both schools were converted and used for all the interior scenes. MGM spent approximately $200,000 transforming Haaren High into a sound stage, with carpentry shops and production offices. The location was used to shoot the film's finale, a graduation ceremony, where students perform the musical number "I Sing the Body Electric". The sequence was filmed in four days with 400 extras, and 150 student musicians.
The exterior of the school was shot using the left wing of the then-abandoned Church of Saint Mary the Virgin building almost directly opposite the real school on West 46th Street in Times Square. The Rocky Horror Picture Show midnight screening sequence was filmed at the 8th Playhouse located on 52 West 8th Street, New York. Sal Piro, president of The Rocky Horror Picture Show Fan Club, appears as an emcee at the screening. Parker later hired Steadicam inventor and operator Garrett Brown to film Doris and Ralph's dialogue scene in a New York City Subway station. Montgomery MacNeil's apartment was located on 1564 Broadway and West 46th Street, Manhattan.
The "Fame" musical number was filmed on 46th Street in three days, with eight choreographed routines, 150 student background actors and 50 professional dancers. The dancers performed to the Donna Summer song "Hot Stuff", as the song "Fame" had not yet been written. Before the sequence was filmed, Stanier left the production for personal reasons. During filming, Seresin chose to operate the camera himself for several hours before IATSE representatives visited the set, and advised Parker that a cinematographer was forbidden to operate a camera, and that the production would be shut down permanently if he did not hire an operator from their union. The following day, the New York Police Department demanded that the cast and crew take a 4:00 p.m. curfew due to complaints of traffic blockages. In addition, the dancers demanded extra pay for performing stunts on top of taxicabs. Principal photography concluded after 91 days.
Parker originally approached music composer and producer Giorgio Moroder, who had previously scored Midnight Express. After Moroder declined, Parker approached Jeff Lynne, the lead performer of Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), who also turned down the offer. Michael Gore was ultimately hired, and produced five original songs for the film. The musical numbers were performed practically on set, as Parker wanted to avoid dubbing during post-production. The "Hot Lunch Jam" musical number was heavily improvised. Parker explained, "This song evolved from an all day session involving groups of kids from all disciplines, as we cobbled together the song with everyone chipping in their contributions."
The filming of the "Fame" musical number inspired Gore to write an original song inspired by the music of Donna Summer. He and lyricist Dean Pitchford spent one month writing the lyrics. Pitchford improvised the lyrics "I'm gonna live forever", inspired by a line of dialogue spoken in the 1964 play Dylan. During the recording sessions, Luther Vandross acted as the song's contractor, in charge of the backup vocals. He improvised the lyrics "Remember, remember, remember", and performed it with backing vocalists Vivian Cherry and Vicki Sue Robinson. The song was later incorporated into the filmed dance sequence during post-production.
Parker wanted the film to end with a huge musical number that would showcase every character. While drafting the script during pre-production, he was partially inspired by the ELO song, "Eldorado". Parker then turned to Gore and Pitchford, requesting that they write a song would combine the film's three musical elements—gospel, rock and classical. The resulting song, "I Sing the Body Electric", was named by Pitchford after the same-titled poem from Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" collection.
The motion picture soundtrack album for Fame was released in the United States on May 16, 1980, by RSO Records. It features nine songs, all of which appear in various scenes in the film. In his review for AllMusic, Stephen Thomas Erlewine awarded the album five stars out of five and wrote, "Yes, the production techniques often do sound dated ... but the music by Michael Gore is dynamic, varied, and alive, sung with real passion and vigor, and it still retains its essential spark 23 years after it was a pop culture phenomenon."
In the United States, the title song "Fame" was released as a single, and reached number 4 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart. The single was not a success in the United Kingdom until 1982, when it was released in May of that year to coincide with the UK release of the television series. The single entered the UK Singles Chart on July 3, 1982, debuting at number 51. The following week, it rose to number four before peaking at the top position of the U.K. charts on July 17, where it stayed for 3 weeks. "Fame" spent a total of 16 weeks on the chart and became the 2nd biggest selling single in the United Kingdom of 1982. A second single, "Out Here on My Own", was released as a follow-up to "Fame". In North America, the song reached number 19 on the Billboard 100 charts. It peaked at number 58 during its three weeks on the UK Singles Chart.
Fame premiered at the Ziegfeld Theatre on May 12, 1980. MGM, which released Fame through United Artists, gave the film a platform release release which involved releasing the film in select cities before expanding distribution in the following weeks. On May 16, 1980, the film premiered at the Cinerama Dome Theatre in Hollywood, California, and opened in limited release in New York, Toronto and Los Angeles. MGM stated that the limited theatrical run was meant to generate strong word-of-mouth support from audiences and mainstream film critics. The studio was especially concerned with the film's cast of then-unknown actors. MGM spent more than $2 million on an advertising campaign that placed emphasis on the film's music. The studio also allowed select theatre chains to give out free tickets for special screenings. Fame was released nationwide on June 20, 1980. It grossed $21,202,829 in North America, becoming the thirty-second highest-grossing film of 1980.
Fame was released on VHS in March 1981, by MGM/CBS Home Video. In 1986, the distribution rights to the film were transferred to Turner Entertainment, which acquired MGM's pre-May 1986 library of feature films. Currently, the rights are owned by Warner Bros., after its parent company Time Warner acquired Turner's library of MGM films in 1996. The film was released on DVD on June 3, 2003 by Warner Home Video. Special features for the DVD include an audio commentary by Parker, a branching video featuring interviews with Parker and several cast members, a making-of featurette, a short documentary on the High School of Performing Arts, production notes, and the theatrical trailer. As a tie-in to the home video release of MGM's 2009 remake, Warner Home Video released the film on Blu-ray disc on January 26, 2010. The Blu-ray presents the film in 1080p high definition, and contains all the additional materials found on the 2003 DVD release, including a CD "soundtrack sampler" that previews four musical numbers from the soundtrack album.
The review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes sampled 29 reviews, and gave Fame a score of 83%, with an average score of 7.2 out of 10. The website's consensus reads, "Just because Fame is a well-acted musical doesn't mean it flinches against its surprisingly heavy topics." Initial reactions among film critics were mixed. Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune awarded the film two-and-a-half stars out of four, writing, "When the kids perform, the movie sings, but their fictionalized personal stories are melodramatic drivel." Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader wrote, "The film is cut at such a frenzied pitch that it's often possible to believe (mistakenly) that something significant is going on." Variety magazine wrote, "The great strength of the film is in the school scenes – when it wanders away from the scholastic side as it does with increasing frequency as the overlong feature moves along, it loses dramatic intensity and slows the pace." Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times awarded the film three-and-a-half stars out of four writing, "Fame is a genuine treasure, moving and entertaining, a movie that understands being a teen-ager as well as Breaking Away did, but studies its characters in a completely different milieu." William Gallagher, in his review for the BBC, wrote, "Alan Parker manages to make this a fairly horrible story even while it remains entertaining. You come away from it with all your preconceptions about the glamour of showbusiness wiped away and you can't help but admire the characters who get through."
Fame garnered awards and nominations in a variety of categories, with particular praise for its title song performed by Irene Cara. It received four Golden Globe Award nominations, including Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, Best Actress - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy (Cara), and Best Original Score (Michael Gore). At the 38th Golden Globe Awards, the film only won one award for Best Original Song ("Fame"). At the 53rd Academy Awards, the film received a total of six Oscar nominations, including Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing and Best Sound. The songs "Fame" and "Out Here on My Own" both received nominations for Best Original Song; it marked the first time in Academy Awards history that two songs from one film were nominated in the same category. The film won for Best Original Score, while "Fame" won the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
Following the film's release, a television spin-off, Fame, aired on the NBC network for two seasons from January 7, 1982 to August 4, 1983. The series was then renewed for first-run syndication, and four additional seasons were produced. Returning cast members from the film, included Lee Curreri, Albert Hague, Gene Anthony Ray and Debbie Allen. The show's popularity, particularly in the United Kingdom, led to the formation of a music group, The Kids from "Fame". The main vocalists were Allen, Ray, Curerri, Valerie Landsburg, Erica Gimpel, Carlo Imperato and Lori Singer. In 1982, the band released two albums, The Kids from "Fame" and The Kids from "Fame" Again, which were largely successful in the United Kingdom. The band members also went on tour, performing as their characters live on stage. After the series was renewed, The Kids from "Fame" produced three additional albums, all of which proved less successful and resulted in the band members parting ways to pursue other projects.
In 1987, it was announced that producer David De Silva was developing a stage version of the film. Fame – the Musical was the first professional production at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, Florida. The show then ran at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from March 25, through April 29, 1989. The musical has since had productions in more than 25 countries.
In 1997, MGM Television produced a second series inspired by the film. Fame L.A., created by Richard B. Lewis, focused on the lives of several students attending a drama and dance school in Los Angeles, California. The series featured Christian Kane, Roselyn Sánchez, William R. Moses, and Lesli Margherita in starring roles. It aired in syndication from October 19, 1997 to March 21, 1998.
In 2002, MGM and Touchstone Television had planned to develop a two-hour television film that would serve as a direct sequel to Fame, followed by a spin-off television series. Both projects were to be produced for the ABC network. The television film was to introduce several students applying for positions at the New York City of Performing Arts, while the spin-off series would focus on their lives during their four years of attending the school. The series would feature new cast members as the young students, as well as those from the 1980 film, as well as updated versions of the songs "Fame" and "Out Here on My Own". Michael Gore was to act as an executive producer for both projects with his producing partner Lawrence Cohen, through their production label White Cap Productions. However, both television projects were never produced.
In 2003, MGM Television produced a reality television series titled Fame, in an attempt to capitalize on the success of the largely popular American Idol. The concept of the series involves discovering a "triple threat"—a person who can sing, act and dance and has a "bigger-than-life" personality. The show, co-hosted by Debbie Allen, and Joey Fatone, featured Carnie Wilson, Johnny Wright and JoJo Wright as the panel of judges. The series premiered on NBC on May 28, 2003, and a total of ten episode were produced. The two competing finalists of the series were Shannon Bex and Harlemm Lee. Lee emerged as the winner of the competition, based on home-audience votes.
In 2012, it was announced that MGM Television was producing a modern-day television series inspired by the film, with Nigel Lythgoe acting as an executive producer. The project resurfaced in June 2015, when The Hollywood Reporter announced that MGM Television would be co-producing the series with A&E Networks for Lifetime, with Josh Safran attached as the show's writer and executive producer.
In 2009, MGM and Lakeshore Entertainment produced a remake of Fame directed by Kevin Tancharoen, and written by Allison Burnett. The remake followed the premise of the original film, depicting the lives of several students as they attend the New York City High School of Performing Arts. Debbie Allen was the only cast member from the 1980 film to have a supporting role, appearing as the school's principal. The film was notable for its lighter tone, in contrast to the earlier film's gritty subject matter. Released on September 25, 2009, Fame received generally unfavorable reviews from mainstream film critics. It was a modest box office success upon release in the United States, though it fared better internationally, grossing $54.7 million worldwide. Parker voiced his disapproval of the remake and described it as an "awful" film. Maureen Teefy also criticized the film, stating, "They're using the same formula, but it doesn't have the same substance. It's not staying true to the grittiness and authenticity of the original."
Upon release, Fame was the last musical to be produced by MGM, before the studio merged with United Artists in 1981. While only a modest success with North American audiences, the film was credited with revitalizing the teen musical subgenre by adding dramatic elements into its story, echoing 1950s melodramas about young people struggling to find fame, fortune and romance. Its presentation of musical numbers in the style of a music video—through the use of quick cuts with multiple angles and crowded, kinetic frames—was a major influence on other 1980s films in the musical and dance film genres, such as Flashdance (1983), Footloose (1984) and Dirty Dancing (1987). The film is also notable for inspiring the creation of many similar performing arts schools around the world—notably the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA)— and popularizing the use of leg warmers.
Fame and its title song helped launch Irene Cara's musical career. She recorded three solo albums and contributed to several film soundtracks, notably performing "Flashdance...What a Feeling", the title song for Flashdance, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Paul McCrane, Meg Tilly, and Barry Miller went on to successful acting careers, while Gene Anthony Ray, Debbie Allen and Lee Curerri found success and popularity with the television series.
Ray struggled with drug and alcohol addictions, and worked sporadically after the series ended in 1987. In 1996, he was diagnosed as HIV-positive and died from a stroke on November 14, 2003.
Fame was Christopher Gore's only original screenplay for a feature film. He was also involved with the 1982 television series as the show's creator, and wrote several episodes before his death from cancer on May 18, 1988.
After Fame, Louis Falco continued to work as a commercial choreographer for several music videos and films. He again collaborated with Parker on the 1987 film Angel Heart before his death from AIDS on March 26, 1993.
In 2004, the American Film Institute (AFI) ranked the song "Fame" at #51 on its "100 Years...100 Songs" list. In 2006, AFI placed the film on its "100 Years...100 Cheers" list, where it was ranked #92. That same year, the film was a nominee for AFI's Greatest Movie Musicals. The film also ranked #42 on Entertainment Weekly's list of the "50 Best High School Movies". In 2014, IndieWire added the song "Fame" on its list of "The 20 Greatest Movie Theme Songs of the 1980s".