July 26, 2007
A chubby girl in 1962 Baltimore tries to realize her dream of dancing on The Corny Collins Show in Hairspray, a movie adaptation of the musical that is a bit different from the John Waters movie in details and tone but true to it in spirit.
Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) is a big-haired, big-boned teenager who dreams of dancing on the American Bandstand-like (or depending on your age, TRL-like) Corny Collins Show and dating the male leader of its “Nicest Kids in Town” dance group, Link (Zac Efron), who is currently dating lead girl Amber (Brittany Snow). When one of the girls has to “take a break” for nine months, a spot opens up and Tracy tries out, even though her mom Edna (John Travolta) fears the other kids will make fun of her and tries to dissuade her from going. Though heavier than the normal Collins dancer, Tracy is light on her feet and, thanks to her time spent in detention learning the latest dances from the African-American kids, hip to all the hottest moves. The only other place one could see such dancing is on The Corny Collins Show’s once-a-month so-called “Negro Day” with its host Motormouth Mabelle (Queen Latifah), which is the only time African Americans are allowed on the TV station.
Corny Collins (James Marsden) and Link are both impressed with Tracy and, much to the horror of the station’s manager Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer), they pick her to be the new dancer. Velma likes her dancers slim, her music plain and her TV shows all white — Corny Collins is looking to integrate his show but this racist fading former beauty queen is solidly against it. She also tries to sabotage Tracy and elevate Amber at every turn, hoping that Tracy will eventually leave the show and Amber will win Miss Teenage Hairspray for the third time in a row.
But Tracy’s enthusiasm and bubbliness not only have made her a fan favorite on the show but have begun to win the heart of Link. Also hoping for an opportunity for romance is Tracy’s friend Penny (Amanda Bynes), who has fallen in love with Seaweed (Elijah Kelley). But Penny’s prim mom (Allison Janney), who forbids Penny to watch the Corny Collins Show, will certainly not approve of this interracial relationship.
Hairspray is a big, colorful, giddy musical in the tradition of the American movie musicals of the 1950s and 1960s. In a recent interview on Fresh Air, director Adam Shankman said he constructed his scenes with visual references to The Sound Of Music, West Side Story and other films of that era and it really shows. The fun in Hairspray is that all the earnest Broadway-meets-Hollywood razzle dazzle retains just enough of the winking John Waters kick — in the opening montage, for example, Waters himself appears as a flasher who is mentioned in the lyrics of “Good Morning Baltimore,” a great sweeping opening number. In “(You’re) Timeless To Me,” the sweetly coy and surprisingly feminine Travolta-as-Edna performs a Fred-and-Ginger-worthy ballroom song-and-dance with Christopher Walken, who is charming as the besotted Wilbur, Edna’s husband and Tracy’s dad. Though the dance is done among the laundry lines of the apartment’s backyard and some of the romance between Edna and Wilbur is played for laughs, it’s still elegant and actually quite romantic. Surprising the audience with characters that aren’t what you’d expect is a familiar Waters approach to story-telling and the musical, even though it is tamer than Waters’ movie, shares that love of the unexpected.
Pfeiffer is probably the weakest of the musical’s characters but even she is above average as the movie’s main villain. Walken, Travolta, Queen Latifah and Kelley solidly inhabit their characters and in their songs each one gets a chance to shine. The movie puts such care into its songs that each one almost feels like a play, with its own cast of stars and its own story to tell. And, despite the bubble-gum pinkness of the movie, it delivers its message — of acceptance regardless of race, body size, bank account or hair height — with skill and joy.
The real star, of course, is Blonsky, who has a mega-watt enthusiasm that shines out from her face regardless of the tone of the scene or what she’s doing in it. She manages to make Tracy earnest without being dopey and idealistic while still seeming grounded.
Hairspray doesn’t reinvent the musical genre — this isn’t the musical for people who don’t like musicals or anything so revolutionary as that. But it is an extremely well done example of the traditional musical-on-film style, with just enough of the John Waters quirkiness left to make it feel clever and fresh. B+
Rated PG for language, some suggestive content and “momentary teen smoking.” Directed by Adam Shankman and written by Leslie Dixon from the musical play by Mark O’Donnell from the 1988 movie by John Waters, Hairspray is an hour and 55 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by New Line Cinema