Less a movie than a mosaic, this remake of the 1980 classic with the Oscar-winning title anthem about the high school for the performing arts has been re-imagined for the hyper-linked and just plain hyper 21st century. As in the original, we follow the stories of aspiring performers from their first audition through four years of high school. But this time, so many characters are thrown at us that we never connect with any of them. This film is as much an artifact of its era as the dancing-in-the-streets first one, perhaps in ways it did not intend. It is a revealing reflection of its target audience: kids used to keeping up to date via tweets and Facebook status lines, the generation that cannot see the line between access to information and understanding the information’s context and import.
It indicates more than it shows, not because it is subtle, but because it is frantic, trying to follow the lives of ten students over four years in less than two hours. Narrative is pushed to one side. Even the too-brief but excellent musical numbers are chopped up and intercut not so much as an artistic statement as a recognition that society as a whole now meets the clinical definition of ADD.
The talented cast passes by so quickly it is like watching a 107-minute trailer. Naturi Naughton makes a strong impression in vocal numbers that include “Out Here on My Own” from the 1980 film. Kay Panabaker has a sweet honesty that comes across well on screen and more than any of the others she shows us the difference in her character as she grows up and gains confidence. An exceptionally strong cast of adults adds some depth to the faculty roles, including “Will and Grace’s” Megan Mullally and “Frasier’s” Bebe Neuwirth and Kelsey Grammer along with movie and theater veteran Charles S. Dutton. If only they had been able to sit down writer Alison Burnett and director Kevin Tancharoen to give them the kind of stern pep talk about craft and discipline that they give to their students, this would have been a better movie.