The road to fame is a rocky one. It’s paved with a plethora of human obstacles, including — but not limited to — naiveté, hubris, treachery, lies, exploitation and lack of talent. Still, the lure of the footlights (such as they are) is strong, and every day scads of fresh-faced young hopefuls get off the bus in either New York or Los Angeles, hoping to be the next Hilary Duff — which is very different than hoping to be the next Lili Taylor.
You’d think that as backstabbing and insular as it is, Hollywood would make films trying to discourage this foolish gambling. But the number of movies telling of the horrors of stardom-seeking are outnumbered by the cinematic fairy tales in which, against all odds, our plucky small-town heroine (it’s almost always a girl) manages to grab that brass ring of showbiz success in the big city. “Raise Your Voice” is the newest entry in this genre, which dates back to 1933 with “42nd Street” (now a Broadway staple).
One of the beset “Yokel Goes Gold” movies is the 1962 cult classic “Wild Guitar,” directed by the “great” Ray Dennis Steckler. In the film, Bud Eagle (Arch Hall Jr.) rides into Hollywood on his motorcycle, nothing but his guitar strapped to his back. Within about a half-hour of arriving in L.A., he’s playing guitar on a TV show and is the hottest thing in La-La Land. Signed by an unscrupulous manager, he is manipulated and forced to compromise both his artistic integrity and his, uh, personal morality. Enjoyable on so many levels, “Wild Guitar” deserves to be seen if only for the performance of director Steckler as a guy called “Steak.”
But the true template for the “kid making it in showbiz” genre was cut in 1980 by the film “Fame.” Bringing the New York City High School for the Performing Arts to the attention of the world, the movie melded the classic musical formula with youth-oriented soap opera. Spanning four years, the Alan Parker film is only slightly less harrowing than the director’s glimpse into a Turkish prison in 1978’s “Midnight Express.” Irene Cara, take off your top or you don’t get the part! Paul McCrane, accept your sexuality — in another two decades, it’ll be all the rage! More than any other movie, “Fame” is responsible for the notion that anyone can be a star. For that reason alone, “Fame” (both the movie and the subsequent TV series) is the only slab of pop culture that truly deserves to be banned. OK, make that “Fame” and “Chasing Amy.”
Jump ahead two decades to “Coyote Ugly” (2000), as much a fairy tale as anything ever concocted by the Brothers Grimm. Piper Perabo plays Violet Sanford, a gal from Jersey who moves to New York to make it as a songwriter. It’s one of those films that makes it seem as if New Jersey is somewhere in the Indian subcontinent instead of right across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Having absolutely no experience as a bartender, she gets a job at one of the most difficult watering holes in the city, the ass-kickin’ Coyote Ugly (serving as a stand-in for the far less corporate Hogs & Heifers, which wouldn’t sell out to Hollywood). Setting whiskey on fire and having wet T-shirt contests increase Violet’s self-confidence as she unsuccessfully peddles her demos to music publishers and labels. Violet falls in love with a hot young promoter (with an accent, even!) who helps her overcome her stage fright and find her true voice, leading, ultimately, to success. Aw!
“Coyote Ugly” is so ridiculously unrealistic in its portrayal of the music business, New York life and bar work that it should’ve been made as a cartoon instead of a live-action film. We know, we know — it’s not supposed to be realistic. But honestly, if Violet would’ve had a talking cockroach (in her “dive” NYC apartment that everyone we know in the city would give their front teeth to have) giving her career advice, this movie wouldn’t have had any less verisimilitude.
Then there’s “Glitter,” 2001’s Mariah Carey vehicle (let’s call it an SUV with a loose axle). Set in the early ’80s, the movie tells of the rise of Billie Frank, a backup singer who is discovered by a DJ and rises to the top of the charts. Savaged by critics, a dud at the box office, “Glitter” (like “Showgirls” and “Can’t Stop the Music”) makes you wonder if those responsible didn’t know from the green light that they were making the kind of stink bomb that can only find success as an unintended cult experience.
Biographical looks at real musicians — think “Selena,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “The Doors,” “Sid and Nancy,” “Bird,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and even “Amadeus” — tend to be a little grittier than the purely fictional fantasies that screenwriters concoct. Still, it’s easy to imagine Hollywood producers suggesting that maybe Patsy Cline’s plane ought to miss the mountain in “Sweet Dreams.”
Music certainly isn’t the only road to fame, but to listen to Tinseltown tell the tale, you’d think dancing was just as much a rocket to riches. “Flashdance” (1983) is to modern dance movies what “2001: A Space Odyssey” was to sci-fi and “Babe” was to films about pork. Set in clanky Pittsburgh, the film tells the intentionally-torn-rags-to-more-upscale-rags tale of welder/exotic dancer (not at the same time) Alex Owens (Jennifer Beals), who yearns to get into ballet school. But her wild and crazy ways are not appreciated by the stodgy admissions board — at first! Remembered mostly for its soundtrack and for Jennifer Beals’ bra-removal technique, “Flashdance” has nonetheless become one of the most iconic films of the 1980s. One of the first movies to take its visual style from music videos, it’s influenced every dance film from “Save the Last Dance” to “Dance With Me,” “Strictly Ballroom” and “Center Stage.”
And then there is the silver screen, the most coveted and elusive branch of fame. The tale of the aspiring starlet has been told a zillion times, from “A Star Is Born” to “Waiting for Guffman,” but maybe never more surrealistically than in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.” (2001). The aborted TV-series-turned-film is the twisted fairy tale of innocent ingénue Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), fresh off the bus and wide-eyed to the glitz of Tinseltown until she becomes intertwined with glamorous amnesiac Rita (Laura Harring). Extreme identity crises mirror the insecurity and extreme narcissism that define the drive for fame. We side with those inclined to believe that much of what David Lynch puts onscreen is surrealism for its own sake, so to put too much effort into figuring it out is a waste of time. But this movie is rife with powerful metaphors for the blows to self-esteem incurred by becoming an actress (or rather, trying to become an actress). Come to think of it, maybe instead of banning “Fame” (since we’re really not in favor of censorship), we should just make “Mulholland Dr.” mandatory post-“Fame” viewing.
But isn’t it kind of sad that most of these movies aren’t so much about a passion for creativity as they are a drive for celebrity? While some indie films like “Shine” and Woody Allen’s “Sweet and Lowdown” may trumpet the artistic spirit, tales of hard-working artists who pay their dues and slowly build careers don’t pack the crowd-pleasing wallop of the rocket ride to superstardom. Still, wouldn’t it be nice to see a dramatization of Neko Case’s career instead of Mariah Carey’s? A little integrity can be inspiring, too.
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