Lincoln Center, New York City
By Caitlin Kelly
If you’ve never seen this movie, you’ve missed a classic!
New York City practically vibrates with ambition — and schools thousands of super-talented teens at places like Juilliard, the School of American Ballet, and The High School for the Performing Arts.
In May 1980, a film about the latter (not shot in the actual school) was released, and its ebullient soundtrack still makes me smile — the title song won the Oscar for Best Song and the soundtrack won the Oscar as well.
It follows a handful of teens from their first year — as Americans call it, freshman year — through to graduation. One, Doris, has a frighteningly pushy stage mother. Another lives alone in an empty apartment, paid for by his absent mother. A third has a father who drives a classic yellow cab (long gone!) who bursts with pride at his son’s talent.
Friendships form. Teachers push them hard, one cautioning them how very difficult it will be to make a living at their art.
What struck me most, watching it again last week, was not the aching, yearning YES! I felt about it all in my early 20s…I had graduated university in 1979 and was just starting my journalism career — but the film’s darkness and sadness as well.
The characters’ adolescence is filled with the angst and self-doubt we all experience, but often prefer to forget.
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.
Director Alan Parker received the script after the release of his previous film Midnight Express (1978). He met with De Silva in Manhattan, New York, where the two agreed that Parker would draft his own script, with Gore receiving sole screenwriting credit. Parker also enlisted his colleague Alan Marshall as a producer. Gore travelled to London, England, where he and Parker began work on a second draft, which was significantly darker than what De Silva had intended. De Silva explained, “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.”
What’s most striking to me, now, is how sheepish and scared the characters are about their racial and sexual identities — one finally pronounces himself, with barely disguised disgust, as “homosexual.” Another mocks his Puerto Rican roots. And AIDS was just on the horizon, and would soon decimate so much talent just like these youngsters.
Love the dance scenes.
Love Anne Meara as the tough-love teacher.
Love the honesty about the brutal competitiveness and insecurity that’s a part of life for every artist, no matter how talented or ambitious.