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”