This film moved me profoundly when I first saw it, when it was new. It got me from the first frames, seeing all these kids auditioning, and it kept getting better. I don’t know when it dawned on me that this was not a made-up place, this was a real school. The New York High School of Performing Arts really existed. (And still does, merged with another arts school and moved to a new location.) The idea of such a place, where students were trained to sing, dance, perform, and play music, was stunning to me. Not because I thought I could have gone there. My French horn playing would never have gotten me within the same zip code of this place, and my acting and dancing talents are non-existent. But I learned there were other specialized high school in NYC, and I know I could have made it there. I don’t want to put down my own alma mater, Nederland High School, too much, we were an okay school with a great band program, but it was a small town. When I arrived at NHS they had just started an “accelerated” science program, with “new math” and a plan for extra science courses. It was great … for two years. Then the only teacher qualified to teach second-year physics left, and me and about fifteen others were stranded. So in my senior I and two other guys taught first-year physics, overseen by a biology teacher who didn’t know a joule from a diamond ring. I was cheated, I was robbed, I was not prepared for college-level science. Well, them’s the breaks, I guess. So watching this film both delighted me, and filled me with envy. All my life I’ve wanted to live in the big city, New York most of all. This was all about big-city kids, kids with dreams. They were working, hard. It was a real tonic after all the stories you hear about how kids aren’t learning anything in school anymore. I’m sure that’s true of a lot of kids, but not these.
As a film and a musical, it’s great. The director, Alan Parker, has been all over the map in his career, with stuff as bad as The Life of David Gale and as good as The Commitments, which is on my Top 26 of All Time list. (He also directed the very odd Bugsy Malone, which most people either love or hate.) Here he keeps everything perfect, following a half dozen kids through all four years. The music always flows from the situation, nobody interrupts the action to break out in song, as in a Broadway musical, and while it may be improbable that kids would run out into the streets and dance on the cars, or that a very creative jam session would spontaneously start in the cafeteria … these kids are so bursting with energy that it is believable, and lots of fun.
As I watched these kids audition, I realized that all the actors playing the parts had gone through the same hell to get their parts. And as the teachers pointed out just how hard their chosen career was, and just how few make it … I wondered how many of these people would be household names in, say, 30 years. Answer: only Debbie Allen, who had a small part and then made it in the TV series which I never watched for the same reason I never watched “M*A*S*H,” and she’s not what you’d call a megastar. Of the kids, a few others have eked out careers in television, but none of them achieved FAME. Oh, well, them’s the breaks.