Film review by: Witney Seibold
The 1988 John Waters original “Hairspray” was the director’s first PG-rated, family-friendly film, despite the presence of notorious drag queen Divine, and Waters’ own usual affection for freaks, weirdos and outsiders. I suppose if any Waters film could fit comfortably on the stage, it would be “Hairspray.” Although, a musical version of “Female Trouble” would have been interesting.
The musical hit Broadway in 2002, and became a runaway success, making millions, and winning a pile of Tonys. Now, like “The Producers” and “Rent” before it, the stage musical has been brought to the screen, probably for us poor schlumps who could afford the pricey Broadway theater tickets.
Unlike, “The Producers” and “Rent” before it, though, “Hairspray” is actually joyous and fun and energetic. It doesn’t merely regurgitate the stage version (the former two films bragged that the original casts and staging had been kept in tact, which makes for thudding and awkward cinema), but actually adapts it for the screen. Director Adam Shankman seems to love musicals, and knows how they ought to be presented. He allows the music to play out, rather than rush into more plot. He allows the dancing to be a feature rather than a distraction. He has chosen the right cast (newcomer Nikki Blonsky, in the lead role, shines. Although John Travolta has to work hard to win over an audience in his role as Tracy’s overweight mother Edna, a role played by Divine, Harvey Fierstein, and Bruce Villanche in the past), and they all throw themselves into their roles with talent and excitement; they all seem delighted to be there, and willing to work hard to make things work.
Baltimore (Toronto), 1962. Tracy Turnblad (Blonsky) is an adorable fat girl who is obsessed with ratting her hair and rushing home with her best friend Penny (Amanda Bynes) to watch “The Corny Collins Show,” a local soulful version of “American Bandstand.” Her mom (Travolta) is a put-upon laundress and her dad (Christopher Walken) runs the local jokeshop. Corny Collins (James Marsden, surprisingly good) is, meanwhile, constantly butting heads with the dragonlady studio owner Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer, acting for the first time in five years) over screentime for her pretty blonde brat of a daughter Amber (Brittany Snow) and her reluctant heartthrob boyfriend Link (“High School Musical’s” Zac Efron). He’s also, impotently, trying to expand the show’s monthly “Negro Day” hosted by Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah).
Nikki skips school to attend a local audition for the show, but is turned away because of her weight. She is sent to detention where all the black students hang out. The black community, in this movie, spends all of their time dancing and smiling, and Nikki learns some sexier moves from the cute Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) and goes back to Corny Collins, gets on the show, and begins to catch the eye of Link. Her life is grand. Penny even begins to have a tentative affair with Seaweed.
Then, of course, since she is friends with black people, she begins to see the not-so-subtle racism in the town, and becomes an activist, organizing marches, evading racist cops, and, ultimately, staging an on-camera coup against the tyrannical Velma.
Other notables: Jerry Stiller (who was in the 1988 original) plays a seller of plus-size dresses. There are cameos by Pia Zadora, Ricki Lake, Mink Stole, and Waters himself. Allison Janney plays Penny’s fascistic mother. And there is a fantastic role in Little Inez (Taylor Parks), who plays a crucial part in the finale.
“Hairspray” does not have the fun/dirty edge of a typical Waters film, but this does not mean that it’s anything but jolly. It still has a weird bite that makes it feel less like the overwrought “Producers” and actually achieves the level of joyous black comedy that “Chicago” tried for and failed to achieve. It’s delirious in how beautifully it charges headlong into its own musical absurdities.
Travolta’s role has been called “stunt-casting” is various reviews, but, given Travolta’s dance background, and dandyish qualities, he’s actually able to sell the role… eventually; it takes a while to get used to his approach, which seems to be a doughy effeminate impersonation of Ed Sullivan and/or Dr. Evil from the “Austin Powers” movies. He and Walken have an unnecessary (but nonetheless fun) dance number together, if, for not other reason, to remind us that these two have been long-time dancers before they became move stars.
The show, though, ultimately belongs to Nikki Blonsky, who should be a star after this film. Her smile is radiant, her dancing is excellent, and her screen presence is joyous. The role of Tracy Turnblad seems to be made for turning first-timers into stars. The 1988 film introduced Ricki Lake into the world. The stage production took first-timer Marissa Jaret Winokur and got her a Tony. The three Tracys sing “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” over the credits.
Also, and I said this in my review for the stinker “She’s the Man,” but Amanda Bynes is not the most talented actress, but her energy and knack for slapstick makes me long to go bowling with her or something. She seems like she’d be fun to hang out with.
A friend of mine, Marc, pointed out to me that the film still has a small racist streak, though. The black characters are not well-rounded emotional beings, but largely dancing, soul-food eating caricatures. He’s right. Luckily, since it’s a bright colorful musical, and the film goes to certain lengths to redeem itself, it’s not so bad as to really be gross.