Director : Adam Shankman
Screenplay : Leslie Dixon (based on the musical by Mark O'Donnell, from the 1988 film by John Waters)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Nikki Blonsky (Tracy Turnblad), John Travolta (Edna Turnblad), Michelle Pfeiffer (Velma Von Tussle), Christopher Walken (Wilbur Turnblad), Amanda Bynes (Penny Pingleton), James Marsden (Corny Collins), Queen Latifah (Motormouth Maybelle), Brittany Snow (Amber Von Tussle), Zac Efron (Link Larkin), Elijah Kelley (Seaweed), Allison Janney (Prudy Pingleton), Taylor Parks (Little Inez), Paul Dooley (Mr. Spritzer), Jerry Stiller (Mr. Pinky)
After the vague disappointment of Susan Stroman's film version of The Producers (2005) and the overstuffed, Oscar-baiting self-importance of Bill Condon's film version of the diva drama Dreamgirls (2006), it seemed that the neo-musical's moment in the Hollywood spotlight was waning. Yet, now we have Adam Shankman's big-screen take on Hairspray--which, like The Producers, is a movie musical based on a Broadways musical based on a movie--and suddenly the genre seems fresh and energetic all over again. It's not that Shankman does anything particularly innovative or radical; in fact, Hairspray downplays visual showiness, even with its 'Scope compositions. Rather, Hairspray works because all its parts click just right, a feat that is all the more amazing when you consider just how many of them could have gone terribly wrong.
Take, for example, the casting of John Travolta as Edna Turnblad, the film's conservative, reserved, constantly-dieting-but-never-weight-losing mother figure. The role, which was originally played in John Waters' 1988 comedy by the infamous 300-pound transvestite Divine, could have been a study in cheap kitsch, especially given Travolta's history as disco king Tony Manero. Yet, Travolta, barely peering out from behind pounds of make-up and an enormous fat suit, imbues Edna with a real soul. He plays up her meek qualities, creating a wonderfully touching disjunction between her potentially intimidating outward appearance and the gentle timidity of the girl inside. It is easily Travolta's best (not to mention most unexpected) performance since Pulp Fiction (1994).
The real star of the film, though, is newcomer Nikki Blonsky as Edna's daughter Tracy, a pleasantly plump ball of energy whose greatest ambition is to be one of the star dancers on the local Baltimore danceathon The Corny Collins Show. Blonsky is so infectiously cute that she could carry the entire movie entirely on her own perky shoulders, and she gets the film off to a energized start with her solo number “Good Morning, Baltimore,” which she delivers entirely on her own without backup dancers or other support. From that opening, she owns every moment she's on screen.
The story is set in 1962, when the U.S. was still technically in the 1950s, but the dawn of the radical '60s was just around the corner. Edna is very much mired in the previous decade (in fact, she claims she hasn't been out of the house since 1951), while Tracy and her best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes, amusingly vacant) look ahead to a future that includes hair-raising ideas like white and black kids dancing together. This generational struggle (guess who wins) is waged in working-class Baltimore, which gives the film a rather stark setting that juxtaposes nicely with its more flamboyant elements. You can see why The Corny Collins Show is such a success, because it allows the kids to step out of the grim work-a-day world into another dimension that is filled with lights, music, and giant cans of hairspray to keep those gravity-defying dos standing up straight.
When she's sent to detention, Tracy meets some of her high school's black students (led by Elijah Kelley's smooth-grooving Seaweed) and learns some new dance moves (a careful revision of Waters' less-PC film, in which they meet in special ed--the black kids being there because of the color of their skin and Tracy being there because her hair is too high). Her eyes opened, Tracy becomes determined to integrate The Corny Collins Show and end its segregated “Negro Day” on the last Thursday of every month, in which black kids are allowed to dance under the purview of local music maven Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah). Tracy's progressive liberalism works is a natural extension of her own being; you can't imagine someone with such a sunny disposition being able to understand why people would be separated just because of the color of their skin.
Standing in her way is the venomous Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer), the local TV station manager and mother of Amber (Brittany Snow), the show's snobbish diva star who simply can't stand the fact that someone with less than an ideal figure could be more popular than she is. In her first movie musical since the disastrous Grease 2 (1982), Pfeiffer hisses and snarls her way through Hairspray, providing us with a truly loathsome, yet consistently funny, foil for Tracy's unbridled enthusiasm. Disgusted by anything outside her tunnel vision, Velma spends most of the movie in a state of irritation, which Pfeiffer plays with lip-curling gusto.
The film rides on the buoyant vibe of the songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman, which are an almost alchemic mix of early rock, R&B, and show-stopping Broadway grandeur. Like any good musical, each major character has his or her moment to shine, whether it be Queen Latifah's ballad “I Know Where I've Been” or the surprisingly touching duet “(You're) Timeless to Me” in which Edna and her jokster husband Wilbur (Christopher Walken) profess their love of each other's timeless qualities (the fact that Wilbur manages to make compliments out of comparing Edna to a disease and an old car is just icing on the cake). Somewhat lost in the proceedings is Zac Efron as Link Larkin, Amber's Richie Valens-esque boyfriend who develops a fever for Tracy, but worries about losing his shot at the big time if he marches with her for integration. With all the big personalities on screen, he is simply too bland to stand out.
Yet, the movie itself soars, even when you think it might be getting ready to sink. The original Hairspray was John Waters' first real attempt to make a mainstream film (the very idea of the auteur behind Pink Flamingos making something in PG-rated territory was a shocker at the time), but he couldn't help but make it a subversive parody of social rigidity and nostalgia for “the good ol' days.” The musical Hairspray maintains some of that, but just a touch; the presence of Waters is felt (especially when he turns up in the movie's opening moments for a cameo as a flasher), but the musical is a different beast altogether--it strives for an uncomplicated sense of pleasure in a way that Waters' films never did, but it does it so well that you never sense the effort. Shankman, who also choreographed the film, doesn't weigh it down in the stage-to-screen translation, but rather lets the music, humor, and energy of the performers carry it along. It's the kind of movie that makes you feel unashamedly good.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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