I watched Fame again a couple nights ago, for the first time in a very long time. I'm talking about the original, not that awful remake or the awful stage musical, which is sadder than a wagon full of wet kittens (to quote Cry-Baby).
And I realized there's so much more depth to this film than I ever noticed before. I'd like to believe that's because I've evolved as a human and as an artist, but it may be due largely to the shit I was smoking while I was watching it.
When I first saw Fame and All That Jazz, I had similar reactions. I thought to myself, If I can see these movies and still want to spend my life in the theatre, I must want it really bad. Which I did. It was the first time I understood that working in the theatre all my life would require sacrifice. If I had only known...
Fame is about how hard it is to devote your life to making art. There is great, transcendent joy and there is also great challenge and struggle. I guess everything in life has its yin and yang, but it seems to me living the life of an artist makes that opposition more stark. Most theatre artists work only sporadically and make very little money. Most have to have a day job. Most struggle just to get by. But they also get to experience joy like most people never know, when they're making great art with other great artists. And I think the point the movie is making is that you can't separate the suffering from the creation. One informs the other. Being an artist doesn't make life easy, but it helps us understand why it's hard.
There's a great sequence in the film where Doris, Ralph, and Monty, as an acting exercise, all reveal painful -- and transformational -- moments in their lives. And you realize, watching it, that going through that pain revealed something of importance to them. Doris realizes that she's trapped in conformity, being a person she doesn't particularly like. Monty realizes he's an outsider in the world -- as many artists are. Ralph taps into the deep, fundamental pain that he has had locked away behind his comedy, pain that informs his comedy. Ultimately, they all learn that fame and fortune are the wrong goals. Money and fans are false gods. Doing the best, most truthful work you can do is the right goal. Making art causes them pain, but their pain has given them the mental and emotional tools to make great art.
I realize now, watching the film again, that Doris, Ralph, Monty, and the dancer Leroy all four follow the classic hero myth. And at the end, just as the hero must return to his people with his newly gained wisdom, so these four share their new understanding in the finale, "I Sing the Body Electric."
The lyric of each verse relates to what that character learned through their struggle. The hero myth and its lessons are so powerful to us because each life lived is a hero myth unto itself. When we watch Star Wars or The Wizard of Oz or Bat Boy or High Fidelity, these heroes' journeys stand as metaphors for our lives, the struggles, the friends, the lessons, the obstacles, the acquired wisdom over a lifetime. That's why we respond so powerfully to these stories. We recognize, usually not consciously, that they are us.
On a more macro level, "I Sing the Body Electric" starts out in the classical music vocabulary, then transitions into rock and roll, and then combines the two. The entire song is one big summarizing metaphor -- a synthesis of musical languages, a synthesis of the various performing arts (music, dance, drama), and the synthesis of individual artistic talents that only the performing arts provides. And it all underlines the artist's great life quest, to synthesize art and life, to combine them to form something new, something illuminating.
I've always loved Fame but now I understand more deeply why I love it.
There is nothing -- and I mean, nothing -- like a great piece of art. It nourishes the soul. And in this crazy, complicated world we live in, our souls need all the nourishing they can get. I sing the body electric every time I make a piece of theatre...
I sing the body electric,
I glory in the glow of rebirth,
Creating my own tomorrow
When I shall embody the earth.
And I'll serenade Venus,
I'll serenade Mars,
And I'll burn with the fire of ten million stars.
And in time,
And in time,
We will all be stars.
Not "stars" as in famous people, but as in eternal points of light that illuminate our way in the darkest night. That's what art is.
Long Live the Musical!