Musical Drama

Hairspray

2007

New Line Cinema

Directed by Adam Shankman

Produced by Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, Bob Shayne, Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman and Tony Emmerich

Written by John Waters, Thomas Meehan and Leslie Dixon

Based on the 2002 musical “Hairspray” and the 1988 film “Hairspray”

As you can tell from the credits, HAIRSPRAY has had a convoluted history.  It started out as a movie which launched Ricki Lake’s career (and her talk show sank what little there was of it).  But only did moderate business and became a cult favorite.  It then was turned into a Broadway musical that won a ton of Tony Awards and that’s when it became a hit.  It became an even bigger success when it returned to the screen as a big-budget musical.  And let me tell you, HAIRSPRAY did a whole lot to make me feel better the first time I saw it during a bad time in my life and when I saw it again recently I was happy that it had the same effect on me and made me feel good all over again.  Only a total Blue Meanie could dislike HAIRSPRAY and its right up there with musicals such as “Mamma Mia” and “Chicago” and classics such as “Little Shop of Horrors” “The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas” and “Grease” that are among my favorites.

It’s Baltimore, 1962 and Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonski) dreams of only one thing: her favorite TV teen dance show: ‘The Corny Collins Show’.  The problem is that Tracy is what we today call “full-figured” but back in 1962 the ‘f’ word is used right to her face when she’s turned down at an audition to dance on the show.  That’s because all of the girls on the show are broomstick thin.  Tracy’s mother Edna (John Travolta) and her father, joke shop king Wilbur (Christopher Walken) in their own ways encourage Tracy to follow her dream and Tracy does have an advantage over most kids: despite her size the chick can shake her moneymaker like nobody’s business which is an attribute noticed by the black kids when she gets thrown into detention with them.  One of the kids, Seaweed Stubbs (Elijah Kelley) teaches Tracy some of his moves which are noticed by Link Larkin (Zac Efron) the lead singer/dancer on ‘The Corny Collins Show’.  Link’s never seen any girl move like Tracy and he insists that she try out again for Corny’s show.

Tracy tries out again and she does indeed land a spot on the show, much to the chagrin of Corny’s producer Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) who is using the show to promote her daughter’s future as a beauty queen.  Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow) is not only Link’s girlfriend but also the front runner for “Miss Teenage Hairspray” both of which are challenged not only by Link’s growing interest in Tracy but Tracy’s increasing popularity not only among white teenagers but black ones as well since Tracy is very outspoken for integrating the all-white Corny Collins Show.  The show is notable for having a once-a-month Negro Day hosted by Seaweed’s mom, Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah).  Corny Collins (James Marsden) himself is with Motormouth and Tracy against Velma’s racist policies against having black and white kids dance together on the show since they see the changing times and know it isn’t long before some very old walls come tumbling down.

HAIRSPRAY covers a lot of ground for what is essentially a Feel Good Musical and I appreciated that.  It surely didn’t have to stretch itself to cover the rising Equal Rights Movement in America and address it through Tracy’s embracing friendships with blacks and a romantic subplot involving Tracy’s best friend Penny (Amanda Bynes) and Seaweed.  There’s a nice scene where a popular song ‘New Girl In Town’ is sung by a white girl group and intercut with a black girl group singing the same song.  When Velma complains to Motormouth about this, Motormouth responds by saying that the black girl group not only wrote the song, they recorded it first.  One is reminded of the Little Richard/Pat Boone ‘Tutti Frutti’ debacle.

The racial subplots don’t get in the way of the main story and in fact do exactly what subplots are supposed to do: support the main story and give us insight into other aspects of the characters.  But at the same time they put more meat on the bones of the main story and it would be hard to imagine HAIRSPRAY without them.  The interracial romance between Seaweed and Penny is handled with a lot more sensitivity than you would expect and it’s made clear that these two would have fallen for each other no matter what color they are.  In fact, due to Penny’s high school status as a Plain Jane and Tracy’s being overweight it’s made clear that they’re considered just as much outsiders by the white kids in their school as the blacks.  Which makes it all the more sweeter when by the movie’s conclusion, Tracy and Penny both get their hearts desire on the merits of their staying true to who they are.

I really love the acting in this movie.  Everybody looks to be having a total blast but nobody more so than John Travolta and Nikki Blonski.  Yes, that is John Travolta in a fat suit playing a woman and while it may come off at first as stunt casting, pay close attention.  Travolta wasn’t hired to convincingly play a woman: he was hired because he can dance and can do so in a sixty-pound fat suit and make it look graceful.  Which he does.  Travolta and Nikki Blonski have a great number together ‘Welcome To The 60’s’ and there’s a number where Travolta sings and dances with Christopher Walken that has to be seen to be believed.   It also helps that Christopher Walken himself is an old song-and-dance man from way back.  Travolta looks like he’s having so much fun that you can’t help but grin when you see him dance around in the outrageous 60’s dresses he wears.

Nikki Blonski carries a lot of the movie on her back and she does it willingly.  Her character is so full of energy, optimism and sheer joy that I fell in love with her right from her opening number ‘Good Morning, Baltimore’.  And I was rooting for her through the whole movie for her to steal Link’s heart as she stole mine.  Adorably cute doesn’t begin to describe her.

Queen Latifah has already proved in other movie musicals she knows how to steal a scene and she does so several times here.  But in fact, just like “Chicago” “Best Little Whorehouse In Texas” and “Little Shop Of Horrors” every song in HAIRSPRAY is an opportunity for whoever is singing to steal the scene and they do so.  Even Michelle Pfeiffer who doesn’t really sing but does that Talking-A-Song-Routine that Rex Harrison and Richard Harris perfected. Elijah Kelly and Taylor Parks steal ‘Run And Tell That’  Christopher Walken and John Travolta steal ‘You’re Timeless To Me’.  Hell, everybody steals.  And with good reason as they’re all great songs and great showcases for their talent.

So should you see HAIRSPRAY?  I’m gonna be honest with you guys: when I first saw HAIRSPRAY I was at a low point in my life.  In the hospital, flat on my back, unable to take ten steps without gasping for air.  So my emotional state at that time perhaps colored my perception of the movie.  But you know what?  I really don’t care.  HAIRSPRAY made me feel good then and it makes me feel good now.  It helped me get through a rough patch I was experiencing and I can think of no higher praise for a movie.  By all means check it out.  Matter of fact it would make a terrific Saturday Night Musical Double Feature with “Little Shop of Horrors”

117 minutes

Rated PG

De-Lovely

2004

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Produced and Directed by Irwin Winkler

Written by Jay Cocks

DE-LOVELY is a good example of the way musicals are made nowadays.  Audiences have to have a ‘reason’ for why the people in the movie suddenly break out in song and dance.  I myself have spoken with many people who hate musicals because as they put it: “Why are the people singing?  Where’s the music coming from?”  Well, where does the music come from in a comedy or an action movie?  It’s not real, people.  None of it.  It’s the movies.  Musicals is a genre where you take it on faith that they’re set in an alternate universe where people express their feelings by singing and dancing to music that comes out of thin air. Jezzly. Pay your money and check your sense reality at the door.

In DE-LOVELY, the conceit is that a man named Gabe (Jonathan Pryce) who may be a guardian angel is taking the old, crippled Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) on a trip back through his life before he dies.  Naturally, Cole’s life is shown to him and us as a stage musical.  Gabe occasionally goes up on stage to give direction to the various characters in Cole’s life, including his wife Linda (Ashley Judd)

The story here in DE-LOVELY is quite simple.  The movie mainly concerns itself with Cole Porter’s amazing music and his complicated relationship with Linda.  Cole Porter is bi-sexual.  Linda had an abusive first marriage that left her uninterested in sex.  She’s content to be the wife of the world famous songwriter and composer.  And it doesn’t hurt Cole’s career that she’s wealthy and socially connected.  As well as willing to ignore Cole’s relationships with other men and women.

The movie depicts the emotional love between him and Linda as real and genuine but physical love between them isn’t all that important.  They sleep in separate bedrooms, only occasionally coming together such as when Cole gets a sudden urge to be a father.  Linda seems to be satisfied with being Cole’s muse and helping direct his career.  It’s Linda who persuades Irving Berlin to come to Venice to offer Cole a job.  The Porters then move to New York where Cole Porter’s Broadway shows are huge smash hits.  It’s Linda who talks Cole into moving to Hollywood where he goes to work for MGM and Louis B. Mayer (Peter Polycarpou) But the move to Hollywood backfires on Linda when Cole gets pulled deeper into the gay subculture and they end up being blackmailed.

DE-LOVELY quickly settles into a routine:  there’s a musical number.  Then we get a scene where Cole and Linda discuss his affairs with women.  Then we get another musical number.  Then we get another scene where Cole and Linda discuss his affairs with men.  And then we get a musical number.  Then we get another…oh, never mind.  I think you get the point by now.

If there’s any reason for you to see the movie it has to be the musical numbers.  Cole Porter wrote some of the greatest songs ever.  “Anything Goes” is one my Ten All Time Favorite Songs and the gimmick in this movie that many contemporary artists appear in the movie in some really terrific numbers singing his songs.  Robbie Williams tears up “It’s De-Lovely” which is sung at the wedding of Cole and Linda.  Elvis Costello performs “Let’s Misbehave” and I really loved the hell out of Alanis Morrisette’s version of “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall In Love”

“Torchwood” fans will get a real charge out of John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness) singing “Night And Day” and while I appreciated Caroline O’Conner’s version of “Anything Goes” where she appears to be channeling Ethel Merman it doesn’t match up to the lavish Kate Capshaw version in “Indiana Jones And The Temple of Doom”  There’s also Sheryl Crow doing a really magical version of “Begin The Beguine”, Vivian Green tearing the raw emotion out of “Love For Sale” and many other wonderful performers including Natalie Cole.

I’ve never been impressed with Ashley Judd as an actress.  Remember back in the 90’s when she was doing suspense thrillers and it seemed like she was remaking the same movie every year?  But here she’s not bad.  She’s a contemporary actresses who looks like she could have been a 30’s/40’s actress and she wear the clothes of the period well.  She inhabits the world of the 30’s/40’s as though born to it.  It’s not an Academy Award performance at all but it is an interesting one.  She goes through some remarkable character development during the film and I appreciated what she was doing while she was doing it.

Kevin Kline is…well, he’s Kevin Kline.  The guy looks like he was born in a tuxedo and I’m convinced he had to have lived a previous life in the 1930’s.  He just looks so comfortable and classy inhabiting that world.  It’s an effortless performance that brought a smile to my face.  But Kevin Kline has that effect on me.  He’s just such a good actor I’d watch him in anything.  I’ve seen him in better movies than this but it’s hard for me to say anything bad about an actor who obviously has so much fun doing what he’s good at.  His huge “Be A Clown” number is in the best tradition of classic movie musical numbers.  And what is really interesting is this:  Even though he’s an excellent singer, Mr. Kline deliberately does not sing as well as he normally does since the real Cole Porter wasn’t that good of a singer.

So should you see DE-LOVELY?  It’s not a movie I say you absolutely have to see.  But it’s very interesting in that it’s less of an examination of the life of Cole Porter and more the story of a woman married to a man who prefers anonymous sex with strangers than with her.   But if you’re a fan of Kevin Kline or Cole Porter music it’s most definitely worth a viewing.  And as a further temptation there are those really great musical numbers.  It’s an okay movie if you’re in the mood for a musical.  Enjoy.

PG-13

123 Minutes

Pennies From Heaven

1981
MGM

Directed by Herbert Ross
Produced by Herbert Ross & Nora Kaye
Screenplay by Dennis Potter based on the BBC miniseries

In 1979 Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters teamed up for what is one of The Ten Funniest Movies I’ve Ever Seen: “The Jerk”  It’s a movie that like “Blazing Saddles” “Porky’s” “Young Frankenstein” “Back To School” and a  few others I’ve seen over and over and even though I know when the jokes are coming I still laugh my ass off as though I’ve seen it for the very first time. “The Jerk” was incredibly successful and when word hit that Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters were going to re-team in another movie, everybody couldn’t wait. So what did they follow up their hilarious comedy smash hit with?

Oh, nothing too shocking. Just a movie about adultery, prostitution, abortion, murder, rape, alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual obsession and psychological dysfunction. Oh, yeah. It’s also a musical.

PENNIES FROM HEAVEN is different from your conventional musical in that the actors don’t sing in their own voices. Instead they lip synch the songs, all of which are popular, happy, merry tunes of The Great Depression sung by the original artists. They are songs that express the inner feelings and fantasies of the characters who inhabit that dark and depressing period of American history where there is very little happiness and hope is non-existent. So for instance, when Steve Martin sees Bernadette Peters for the first time and breaks out into “Did You Ever See A Dream Walking?” he’s lip-synching to Bing Crosby’s voice. It takes a bit of getting used to and it’s not just a gimmick either. If it weren’t for the happy songs and the glitzy, lavish musical/dance numbers that are done in true 1930’s Busby Berkeley style, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN would be a painfully difficult movie to sit through.

Arthur Parker (Steve Martin) is a man who spends most of his life wishing he were doing something else or being somebody else. He’s sick of his nowhere job as a sheet music salesman and dreams of owning his own record store. He’s insanely in love with the songs he peddles and honestly believes their promises of a happy and prosperous life full of dance, rainbows, eternal sunshine and champagne bubbles. His marriage to the sexually repressed Joan (Jessica Harper) is even more boring than his job and it doesn’t take much for him to stray when he meets Eileen (Bernadette Peters) a painfully shy schoolteacher while he’s on a four-day road trip. Arthur seduces Eileen and then returns home where he pathetically and selfishly wheedles Joan into giving him the sizeable inheritance her father left for her to buy his record store.

Eileen discovers that she’s pregnant and is forced to leave her job and her home. Having no support from Arthur she falls in with a dangerously charming pimp (Christopher Walken) and begins a new life as a prostitute. It’s a life that Eileen takes to surprisingly well since her affair with Arthur awakened a darkly sluttish aspect of her personality that Eileen finds she likes a whole lot. It’s while she’s servicing a customer in an alley that she and Arthur encounter each other again. They find that their unholy lust for each other is as strong as ever and they make plans to run away and start a new life together. Eileen wants to get away from her pimp and Arthur now hates the record store he once wanted more than anything else in the world. However, they’re unaware that Arthur is being sought by the police for the rape and murder of a blind girl he had a five-minute conversation with. The same day that Arthur gave a lift and bought a meal for a homeless accordion playing beggar (Vernel Bagneris) who may be the one to actually have committed the crime.

Now I’m sure that there are some of you who are saying that this sounds like a horribly depressing and sad movie and in fact, it damn sure is. If it weren’t for the wonderfully elaborate and fun musical numbers presented as the inner fantasies of the characters, watching PENNIES FROM HEAVEN is enough to make you want to go get drunk afterwards. When the movie stays in the real world it’s a gloomy, depressing world with no brightness and no joy. Arthur’s seduction of Eileen has no romance or charm and is in fact embarrassingly clumsy.  There’s a really sleazy scene where Joan at last gives in to one of Arthur’s fetish fantasies and the pain on her face made my stomach flip.  Arthur verbally abuses everyone he meets.   Even while he’s buying a meal for the accordion player he takes every opportunity to insult the feeble minded man.  I think it’s very telling that the only person in the movie Arthur treats like a feeling human being gets killed.

But those musical numbers are so full of life and energy that you can’t help but be lifted out of the depressing mood of the other parts of the movie and pat your feet along with the music. “My Baby Said Yes, Yes” is a showstopper with Steve Martin and dozens of chorus girls high kicking on a staircase that looks a mile long while ten foot high silver coins merrily roll all over the place. Eileen is in front of her dingy classroom filled with sad-eyed children in ragged clothing when suddenly the classroom is transformed into a gorgeous music hall and the kids are tap-dancing like mad on mini baby grand pianos dressed in gleaming white outfits while Eileen herself is now wearing a silver gown that looks as if she was sewn into it while singing “Love Is Good For Anything That Ails You” Christopher Walken brings down the house with “Let’s Misbehave” and a terrific dance routine where he loses every article of clothing except for his hat, shoes and shorts. And the best number of all is the wonderfully surreal “Pennies From Heaven” with Vernel Bagneris dancing in a rainstorm that actually turns into a shower of pennies. He does a marvelous dance during the violin solo and his lip-synching of the song is so powerful that I was mesmerized.

I thought the performances in this one, especially by Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters was exceptionally good. Remember that in 1981 he had only done four movies and starred in one, this being his second. I think it took a lot of guts for him to play such an unlikable bastard so early in his movie career. There are parts of the movie that had me wishing I could reach into the screen and strangle the shit out of Arthur for screwing up other people’s lives with such selfish callousness. Bernadette Peters is easily an acting match for her co-star and her transformation from depressed schoolteacher to streetwise streetwalker is a bit too convincing. Once Eileen gets a taste of the Dark Side she gives herself over body and soul.

This movie does the one thing I though it was impossible to do: make Jessica Harper look plain. She goes through the movie looking as if she expects a safe to drop on her at any second and some of the scenes where Martin’s character verbally abuses her, the pain in her eyes is so clear that I was hurting for the poor child myself. Christopher Walken makes the most of his only big musical number and does more with it than most other actor would have done with an entire movie. And that’s another reason why I liked PENNIES FROM HEAVEN: when I watch a dance routine I like to be able to see the whole dancer, not just their feet or their smiling faces. Herbert Ross knows how to film a dance scene. He lets the camera stay still and lets the dancers move. The result is exhilarating.

So should you see PENNIES FROM HEAVEN? Absolutely. Yes, its story is depressingly grim and the characters are desperately sad but it’s a marvelously powerful movie with outstanding musical numbers and great acting. I honestly think that it was a movie made well ahead of it’s time and it probably scared the hell out of the legions of Steve Martin fans who paid their money expecting a laugh filled romp and got this instead. Don’t you miss out. PENNIES FROM HEAVEN is one of the most imaginative and innovative musicals I’ve ever seen. Enjoy with my blessings.

108 minutes
Rated R