by David Cornelius
There was always something deliciously subversive about the 1988 film “Hairspray” - a fun-for-the-whole-family comedy from the guy that made “Pink Flamingos” and “Polyester.” In 2002, the movie was adapted into a hit Broadway musical, and I could imagine John Waters laughing all the way, all those average folks tapping their toes while darker themes lurk not-so-underneath. After all, it wasn’t just a story about how being different is OK, but how much fun it is to be wildly, totally, in-your-face different. Fat chicks and drag queens and interracial romance win out, and all the skinny blonde people get a big up-yours.Now the whole thing’s come back as a movie again, this time as a big budget adaptation of the musical, with John Travolta in drag and the guy that directed “The Pacifier” behind the camera. Which seems to suggest safe, Middle America appeal - we can laugh at Travolta because he’s all dressed up as a fat woman, and ain’t that a hoot?
"The stars of 'Grease' and 'Grease 2,' together at last!"
And to those going in to the film expecting such results, that’s about what you’ll get: a kooky musical with some catchy tunes, a nice, clean message about getting along, and maybe the occasional oddball humor that seems a little silly, but that’s alright, because heck, would that kid from “High School Musical” do something dirty?
He sure would. This new “Hairspray” is one gloriously twisted ride, with all its attitude right out there in the open. The opening song, “Good Morning Baltimore,” goes for the same kind of jokes as “Mountain Town” from the “South Park” movie did: lyrics about the worst parts of town set to a carefree tune. (In this case, it’s rats, drunks, and flashers.) That both soundtracks were written in part by Marc Shaiman is no coincidence, then. Shaiman (who co-wrote the music with Scott Wittman) has long been associated with lyrical naughtiness, and his irreverent wit helps fuel the transition from John Waters indie flick to all-out Broadway spectacular without losing any of the original’s bite.
The story’s more or less the same: it’s 1962, and chubby-and-cheery teenager Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky, flawless in her film debut) simply adores “The Corny Collins Show,” Baltimore’s local TV version of “American Bandstand.” The stars of the show are Link Larkin (Zac Efron) and Amber von Tussle (Brittany Snow), both of whom also attend Tracy’s high school. (In fact, all the kids on the show attend the same school, which would normally make no sense, but in this movie, it somehow makes perfect sense.) When one of the teenage dancers requires a sudden nine-month leave of absence (you know, for health reasons), Tracy decides to follow her dream and audition for the open spot. Alas, it makes no matter than she can dance. She is different, and that’s enough for wicked station manager and former beauty queen Velma von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) to reject her straight up.
Ah, but Tracy knows how to make friends, and after landing in detention with all the black kids, she picks up some fine new moves - moves which eventually catch the eye of both Link and Corny Collins himself (James Marsden). Soon, Tracy is local TV’s hottest new star, and that’s when she uses her power to push for racial integration on the show.
The screenplay (by Leslie Dixon, reworking Waters’ original script and Mark O’Donnell’s stage adaptation) makes light of the ignorance surrounding segregation. Velma’s ruthless bigotry makes her an easy villain and the butt of many jokes, but the film is quick to comment on the supporting white cast’s complete buffoonery regarding race - and the black cast’s sly awareness of it. Tracy herself is the only truly colorblind person in the story, and her naïveté is winning. “I wish every day were Negro Day,” Tracy cheerfully declares, referring to the one day each month when blacks are allowed on the TV show; “In our house, it is,” Tracy’s new friend Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) casually replies.
But then, suddenly, there is weight to the issue (no pun intended). Tracy plans a civil rights march, and the movie slows down, puts the laughs on hold for a few minutes, and lets us soak in the sights and sounds of freedom pushing its way forward, against all odds. Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) sings a thoughtful hymn (“I Know Where I’ve Been”) as the faces of the segregated look on with pride. It’s only a minor detour - we’re soon back to big, brassy comedy - but it’s so very welcome, a dramatic punctuation to the movie’s often frivolous satire.
The whole movie reminds us of a time when people were afraid to move forward and face a new future filled with new differences (Tracy implores her mother to embrace social change in “Welcome to the 60s”), and while it might seem to be all about black-and-white issues with maybe a we-don’t-all-need-to-be-size-zero lesson or two kicked around for good measure, there’s something more going on, something more timeless.
“Hairspray,” then and now, is about the outsiders getting in, and maybe locking the insiders out. All the heroes are far from normal from the point of view of the von Tussles and their ilk, and yet they triumph in the end thanks to their open minds and their forward thinking. “Hairspray” is all about letting your freak flag fly - when Tracy’s dad (Christopher Walken!!) serenades his oversized wife (Travolta) with the sweet “You’re Perfect to Me,” he’s serenading all of us. Don’t you dare not want to be different. Celebrate who you are. One thinks Tracy would welcome the fact that both movies were directed by gay men with a hearty “That’s great! Now let’s dance!”
Ah, but “Hairspray” is not just about message-making and stern moralizing. This is a film that just wants to have fun, and does it ever. The comedy pops and the musical numbers zing - and unlike most musicals, which frontload themselves with tunes and leave the second act sparse on the music, “Hairspray” is crammed wall-to-wall with songs. It’s a great big party, and you’re invited. It’s funny and silly and cute all at once, and the cast (which also includes Amanda Bynes, Allison Janney, and cameos from Ricki Lake and Jerry Stiller) is obviously having a blast. Travolta makes his bit of stunt casting (in tribute to the late Divine, the role has always been played in drag) more than just a cheap punchline, bringing a surprising sincerity to the role (and a glorious subtext to the role). Walken, meanwhile… well, the sight of Christopher Walken dancing is one of the greatest things in this universe.
And, of course, there’s Blonsky, who made headlines by winning the role despite having no previous acting experience. Her debut here is the kind of take-notice stunner reminiscent of Jennifer Hudson’s role in “Dreamgirls.” Blonsky is sassy and adorable, a knock-out vocalist with great comic timing. She’s a perfect Tracy and the lynchpin of the whole film. She smiles, and we smile, and we’re won over.And that’s when we go give a big ol’ up-yours to the skinny blondes. John Waters would be proud.
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originally posted: 07/20/07 00:00:00