John Waters has perfected the art of being shocking. In Pink Flamingos, he had cross-dressing star Divine eat real dog droppings on camera. In Polyester, he introduced the world to “Odorama,” in which viewers used a scratch-and-sniff card at pre-designated times to catch a whiff of flowers, glue, pizza, and feces. In Multiple Maniacs, he had a lesbian encounter take place in a church pew. But the most shocking thing Waters ever did happened in 1988, when he released Hairspray - his first (and only) PG-rated movie. The film was later turned into a Broadway musical and now returns to the big screen in that form.
Newcomer Nikki Blonsky plays Tracy Turnblad, an overweight Baltimore teen who, along with best pal Penny (Amanda Bynes), runs home from school every day to watch a local dance program called “The Corny Collins Show,” much to the dismay of his laundress mother Edna (John Travolta, taking over the role originally played by Divine). Corny (James Marsden) spins the records while an assortment of clean-cut (and white) local kids dance. Chief among them are heartthrob Link Larkin (Zac Efron) and his snooty girlfriend Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow). Given that Amber’s mother Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer) is the station manager, it’s no surprise that she gets more than her fair share of screen time.
Tracy dreams of someday being on the show, and she skips school one day to audition. Cutting class lands her a trip to detention, where she meets a group of African-American teenagers, befriends them, and becomes influenced by their moves. After becoming a regular on Corny’s show, Tracy wonders why the program only has a monthly “Negro Day” instead of fully integrating the cast. Together with detention pal Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) and marginalized Corny colleague Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah), she sets out to protest Von Tussle’s discriminatory way of running the station. Christopher Walken also appears as Tracy’s father, who runs a joke shop and encourages her to stand up for what she thinks is right.
I love Waters’ original Hairspray, and it translates beautifully to the musical format. Since it was always a dance- and music-heavy film anyway, it only makes sense to adapt the story in this style. The hard part is taking something that works on Broadway and making it work on film. As The Producers proved, you can’t just shoot what is essentially the stage version; instead, you have to keep the spirit while staging the musical numbers in a way that is appropriately cinematic. Director Adam Shankman (who also did all the choreography) figures out how to do this. By “opening up” production numbers to take place in multiple settings and using camera movements/editing styles that accentuate them, he really makes Hairspray feel like a movie and not just a movie based on a play.
The songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, several of which are new tunes written specifically for the movie, are literally toe-tapping. (One woman in my theater was witnessed dancing in the aisles at the end.) When a musical is done well, it always makes me realize how much I enjoy the genre. Mixed together appropriately, music and visuals can adrenalize an audience like nothing else. The way the two components complement each other can be magical. Hairspray achieves this, turning each production number into something rousing. When you add the costume and set designs – which nostalgically recreate 60’s era Baltimore – the end result makes Hairspray approach the status of being a modern-day Grease. (That film is even better, but I don’t doubt that this one could have a similar kind of lasting impact, especially with young people, who may decide that the 60’s looked kind of fun after all.)
In every instance, the casting is spot-on, and in a few cases, it is exceptional. Michelle Pfeiffer is terrific as the stuck-up station manager. She’s been gone from the big screen for a long time, and it was nice to see her again. Nikki Blonsky, who worked at a Cold Stone Creamery before getting her big break, is absolute perfection as Tracy (a role originated by Ricki Lake). With her oversized personality and sparkling singing voice, this young actress makes an astonishing debut. Working alongside tons of veteran talent, she totally carries the picture. As for Travolta working in drag…I initially had doubts that I’d ever be able to look beyond that, but I did. Travolta finds the character beneath all the prosthetics and turns in one of his most lively performances to date.
I have nothing bad to say about Hairspray, just a simple observation. It loses one thing from the original. Large sections of Waters’ version were dedicated to showing the different fad dances of the day – the ones the white kids did and the ones the black kids did. Then it showed how these styles kind of merged as integration set in. You could feel the director’s genuine nostalgia for the time in his city when races came together through the power of passion for music. The new Hairspray maintains the inspiring message of racial equality, but the nostalgia seems more manufactured. Waters was inspired by reality; the creators of the musical were inspired by a movie.
Again, that’s not a criticism. It’s just a way of saying that despite having the same plot, the same characters, and the same situations, the two films are at some level different. Which they probably should be. Hairspray the musical nicely compliments Hairspray the original motion picture. It remains respectful to the source material while still finding its own identity. A funny thing happened: I was having so much fun watching this movie that when it was over, I felt a strange feeling of disappointment. I could have sat there all day. It’s just that entertaining.
( 1/2 out of four)
Hairspray is rated PG for language, some suggestive content and momentary teen smoking. The running time is 1 hour and 57 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Hairspray
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