Okay, now… Stay with me here… In 1988, the somewhat subversive indie filmmaker John Waters made a low budget movie about outsiders called Hairspray. Maybe a decade later, this little movie was discovered by Broadway and had a lengthy, if sugarcoated. run on the Golden Way. Now, the Broadway musical has been adapted to film. Now, even as a sugary, fluffy Hollywood movie, Hairspray maintains its original creator’s lovingly subversive charm…
Disclaimer: Conceptually, I hate musicals. People do not break into song [with other people in the street doing complex choreography behind them], nor would it be particularly cool if they did so. In practice, however, there may be nothing that can a person feel as good as a well-executed musical [An American In Paris, Brigadoon, even HAIR]. That said, on with the review!
By now, unless you’ve been living on the moon, chances are that you’ve heard about Hairspray in one context or another. The original Hairspray starred gay icon Divine as Edna Turnblad, mother of the film’s heroine, Tracy Turnblad – a fat girl who, in 1962, wanted nothing more than to dance on The Corny Collins Show [a kind of local Dick Clark’s American Bandstand]. And maybe have the show’s coolest regular, Link Larkin fall in love with her.
Even just at that point – with the fat girl getting the dream gig and the handsome fella – and with a man playing the heroine’s mother – Hairspray would have been subversive enough. Instead of stopping there, Waters used Tracy’s innocence as the catalyst to bring integration to the Baltimore TV station by having her learn some moves from them and then declaring on the show that, if she were president, she would make it “Negro Day every day.” [At that point in the story, the show was white – except for one day a month, when it was Negro Day.] One aspect of the original film has become a tradition: in every production – film, on Broadway, of-Broadway, off-Broadway, dinner theater – Edna Turnblad is played by a man [Harvey Fierstein being one of the more successful Broadway Ednas].
In its current incarnation, Hairspray is given a Hollywood gloss. Every indoor surface [save for the Turnblad apartment and Wilbur Turnblad’s joke store, The Hardy-Har-Hut] gleams. The clothes are period perfect and crisp and new [even on the black kids from the wrong side of the tracks]. The set of The Corny Collins Show is the perfect local teen music show set – bright and shiny, though achieved on a low budget. The black-owned record store is drab, but clean, and brightened only by the spirit of the people who congregate there.
Into this world comes Tracy [Nikki Blonsky], bubbly, smart and focused on her two big dreams: becoming a dancer on The Corny Collins Show, and winning the heart of the show’s number guy, Link [High School Musical’s Zac Efron]. With the wise counsel of her father, Nikki gets through person disparagement by the station’s vain, racist manager, Velma Von Tussle [Michelle Pfeiffer] and rumor-mongering by her vapidly pretty daughter Amber [Britanny Snow] and uses the dance moves she picks up from black kid Seaweed [Elijah Kelley] to catch Collins’ [James Marsden] attention at the school’s sock hop.
When Tracy gets a position on the show, things begin to change for her – her dad’s store sells Tracy Turnblad merchandise; the manager of a clothing store for plus-sized women signs her up as a spokes girl, and she blows the station manager’s mind when she declares that, if she were President, it would be Negro Day on The Corny Collins Show every day!
Although there are scenes showing what amounts to a civil rights march, and newscasters exaggerating events for ratings [nothing familiar there, eh?], everything is done with that Hollywood veneer that keeps Tracy’s innocent desire to dance at the heart of her activism. The result is that the strides that take place in the Baltimore of Hairspray comes from a heart that can’t see what the fuss is all about – even as it recognizes that there is fuss…
But what about the music [I hear you ask]? The songs are diabolically hummable, from Blonsky’s chipper rendition of Good Morning Baltimore to Christopher Walken’s Wilbur and John Travolta’s Edna Fred-and-Gingering a sweet [You’re] Timeless to Me. And watching a couple of old pro hoofers like Walken and Travolta at work is a distinct pleasure.
The cast is truly amazing. Besides Nikki Blonsky’s dazzling debut, we get fine performances from Travolta, Walken, Pfeiffer, Kelley and Efron, there’s Amanda Bynes [as Penny, Tracy’s best friend – and daughter of as uptight a born again Christian as you’ll ever see – played by Allison Janney], Queen Latifah [Motormouth Maybelle, host of Negro Day and activist-in-waiting], and Taylor Park as the whirlwind, Little Inez. John Waters even has a perfectly Watersish cameo [I’m not giving it way – it’s too priceless] that effectively gives Adam Shankman’s film his seal of approval.
Hairspray may be in tough against this summer’s onslaught of blockbusters, but it deserves your attention. It is simply the best movie musical in a decade [and no, I didn’t get in to see it for free]! Adam Shankman’s direction may take advantage of that Hollywood veneer I mentioned earlier, but it doesn’t use it to obscure Waters’ subversive heart. The result is a film that is a giddy delight with a heaping helping of Baltimore soul.
Ya gotta love that!
Final Grade: A+
EM Review Post by Sheldon Wiebe
Originally Posted 07/20/07
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