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Worth A Look: 35.48%
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6 reviews, 26 user ratings

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Hairspray (2007)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Dance Dance Revolution, Baltimore Style"
4 stars

The new musical “Hairspray” comes to theaters with two large and unavoidable obstacles to overcome. The first is the fact that while there has been a slight upturn in the production of full-scale movie musicals in the wake of the success of 2002's “Chicago,” nearly all of those efforts (most notoriously “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Rent”) have been financial and artistic disasters. The second is that the last time a film came along that followed the same evolutionary path as “Hairspray”–first appearing as a cheerfully ragged low-budget cult comedy, then transmogrifying into a hugely popular stage musical and finally returning to the big screen as a splashy musical extravaganza–it resulted in “The Producers,” a film that was amusing enough but which failed to capture the energy and humor of either of its previous incarnations. Happily, that is not the case with “Hairspray,” a fun and energetic romp that even those with a constitutional aversion to seeing people bursting into song at the drop of a musical cue will probably find themselves enchanted by its charms.

Following the template of the original film fairly closely, the film stars newcomer Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad, an irrepressibly cheerful and zaftig teenager whose entire life is centered around “The Corny Collins Show,” a local TV show that is all the rage among the kids in 1962 Baltimore (if not the parents who don’t quite understand, and who don’t want to understand, such trends as “race” music and dances like the fug and the mashed potato) and Link (Zac Efron), the school dreamboat who is one of the show’s featured performers. When one of the other performers announces that she is going to be leaving the show for a little while (“about nine months”), Tracy yearns to audition for the spot but her mother, Edna (John Travolta in the role once played by the legendary Divine) is dead-set against it–she wants her to give up those crazy dreams and become a laundress like her before she gets her heart broken when she inevitably gets passed over for someone thinner and more conventionally pretty. However, Tracy’s dad, joke-store owner Wilbur (Christopher Walken), is more open-minded and convinces Tracy to go for it. Alas, when Tracy and best pal Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) show up for the auditions, they are rudely given the brush-off by the two queen bees dominating the show–monstrous station manager (and former Miss Baltimore Crabs) Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her equally hateful daughter, show centerpiece Amber (Brittany Snow).

However, Tracy is not the kind of girl who takes things lying down and when she impresses Corny Collins (James Marsden) at a dance with some nifty moves she has learned from the black students in detention hall, she gets the slot and quickly supplants Amber both as the most popular performer on the show and as a dark horse candidate for the title of Miss Teenage Hairspray. This doesn’t set well with either Amber or Velma and both scheme to get rid of Tracy for good–the former spreads malicious lies at school and tries to lure Link into her peroxided grasp while the latter goes so far as to attempt (for lack of a better word) to seduce Wilbur, not realizing that he is perhaps the only man in the world not susceptible to her physical charms. While all this is going on, the burgeoning civil rights movement begins knocking on the door of “The Corny Collins Show,” a program where the performers are all-white except for “Negro Day” on the last Tuesday of every month. Tracy thinks that stinks (“I wish every day was Negro Day!”) and even Corny himself is pushing to integrate the show in the name of progress. Alas, 1962 Baltimore is not exactly a hotbed of progress and when Velma responds by pulling Negro Day altogether, Tracy decides to take a stand by joining in the protest led by Negro Day hostess Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah), knowing full well that it will mean the end of her appearing on the show. Of course, that turns out not to be precisely the case as the climax of the film is a live (naturally) broadcast of the Miss Teen Hairspray pageant in which the burgeoning civil rights movement collides with “American Bandstand” in a manner in which lessons are learned and everyone gets more or less what they deserve without ever once missing a beat.

I never got around to seeing the stage version of “Hairspray” so when I was watching the film, I was surprised to discover that the sweetly subversive tone of the original film (which is still John Waters’ finest film in my book) has survived its trip to Broadway and back more or less intact. A lot of the dialogue in Leslie Dixon’s screenplay manages to maintain the balance between being funny and ringing true to the period (such as the bit where Tracy is reprimanded by her teacher for “inappropriate hair height”) and this tone is maintained in the song composed by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman–songs such as the opener “Good Morning Baltimore,” “The Nicest Kids In Town” and the rousing closer “You Can’t Stop The Beat” are so catchy the first time you hear them that you almost don’t notice the frequently hilarious lyrical wordplay contained within. (That said, the purist in me wishes that the film could have found room for some authentic period tunes of the kind that Waters unearthed for his film.)

Unlike a lot of the recent film adaptations of Broadway musicals, especially “The Producers,” “Hairspray” realizes that it is a movie and has been shot in a far more cinematic manner that allows the material to transcend its stagebound origins. I must admit that I was a little bit leery about the prospects for the film when I learned that it was going to be directed by Adam Shankman, the auteur of such deathless classics as “Bringing Down the House,” “The Pacifier” and “Cheaper By the Dozen 2" but he turns out to be the right man for the job after all. Shankman got his start as a film choreographer (including such projects as “Boogie Nights” and the legendary “Once More With Feeling” musical episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) and he stages the musical numbers here with a lot of energy and style without ever feeling overly choreographed for the most part–when the kids are dancing on the show, they come across as real kids dancing on a real low-budget TV show instead of trained professionals in an expensive movie musical. As for the scenes between the songs, Shankman is more content to stay out of the way and let the material itself carry things along without trying to gussy things up on his end.

Shankman also lucked out by assembling a talented cast that, unlike many recent stabs at the genre, actually has some experience with the requirements of a movie musical–we don’t get any of the torturous editing tricks that were deployed in “Chicago” to cover up the fact that Renee Zellweger couldn’t really dance that well. As Tracy, newcomer Nikki Blonsky is a wonderful bundle of energy who handles the singing and dancing as effortlessly as she holds her own against her co-stars and Michelle Pfeiffer, making a long-overdue return to the screen after a five-year break, is hilariously monstrous as her chief antagonist–her “Miss Baltimore Crabs” number is almost as memorable as her rendition of “Making Whoopee” from “The Fabulous Baker Boys.” Even Queen Latifah and James Marsden, two performers who really haven’t done much for me in the past, are standouts here–Marsden is especially funny and knowing as the surprisingly progressive Corny. For me, the two cast standouts are Christopher Walken as Tracy’s father and Amanda Bynes and her best pal. Walken is always a hoot to watch, to be certain, but he is in top-form here–the sequence in which Velma unsuccessfully tries to seduce him within the confines of his joke store is a little masterpiece of comic timing. (His response to Velma’s accusation that he is “obtuse” is worth the price of admission all by itself.) As for Bynes, the teen star who has demonstrated an enviable flair for comedy in such films as “What A Girl Wants” and “She’s The Man,” she is absolutely adorable and when she finds herself smitten by Maybelle’s son, Seaweed (newcomer Elijah Kelley) and announces to the world, not to mention her reactionary mother (Allison Janney), that she is now a “checkerboard chick,” even the hardest hearts in the audience will find themselves cheering with delight.

I do have a couple of quibbles with the film that do need mentioning. For starters, there are simply too many songs in the film–even though a couple from the stage show have apparently been dropped for the film, a couple have been added to take advantage of the presence of “High School Musical” heartthrob Efron. This may sound like a silly complaint from a film that is, after all, a musical but at a certain point towards the middle, we get so many numbers in a row without a breather that simply watching them becomes a little exhausting. Another problem is that the material relating to the integration issue is handled with a somewhat heavy hand that doesn’t jibe well with the otherwise frivolous proceedings–in his version, Waters deftly handled this element with the same lightness of touch that he brought to everything else and it was all the better for it.

Finally, there is the matter of John Travolta’s much-hyped performance as Edna. It isn’t a bad performance by any means–it is probably the best thing he has done since “Primary Colors”–but the mere sight of him swathed in women’s clothing and latex (the latter giving him a disconcerting resemblance to a heftier version of one of the White Chicks) is always a bit of a distraction to the proceedings. To be fair, I am willing to concede that part of my reaction to this may stem from the fact that Travolta is stuck playing the one role in the film that could not be improved on from the original. However, when Divine appeared on the screen as Edna, we simply accepted him as Edna (at least those of us who had seen his previous collaborations with Waters) and went along with the performance. When Travolta appears, by comparison, we are always conscious of the fact that it is John Travolta in drag and despite his best efforts, he is never quite able to shake loose from that perception. (I assume that the tradition of having the role of Edna being played by a man is meant to be an homage to Divine but I must admit that I wouldn’t mind seeing an actual woman taking a stab at the part for once.)

Those flaws aside, “Hairspray” is still an enormously engaging movie that is as fizzy as a soda pop and just as refreshing when consumed alongside the other multiplex behemoths. It certainly doesn’t replace the John Waters original by any means but it certainly stands on its own high heels as an entertaining film in its own right. Fans of the musical genre are going to adore it of course but even if you are the type who would prefer plunging your extremities in a deep-fat fryer instead of seeing a production number, its giddly goofy charms should send you out of the theater with a smile on your face, a song in your heart and a tease in your hair.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15529&reviewer=389
originally posted: 07/20/07 00:37:24
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User Comments

11/18/12 Meredith B Fantastic cast!! 5 stars
7/20/11 art Has it's ups and downs, and Amanda Bynes is pRICELESS,as sweet penny pingleton. 3 stars
12/05/08 Shaun Wallner Well made. 5 stars
10/20/08 Monster A Go-Go This ain't the orig. Ricki Lake IS Tracy Turnblad--the new kid seemed fake. Pfeifer rocked 2 stars
7/11/08 AnnieG Fun and sweet, positive and engaging. A movie worth owning and watching again. 5 stars
12/03/07 Tiffany Losco I bought it on dvd, It is so awesome. Love John travolta as a fat women 5 stars
10/28/07 Mike R. all the characters were awesome-you can't stop the beat!!!! 5 stars
10/23/07 William Goss Only Travolta holds back otherwise brisk, energetic musical. 4 stars
10/15/07 Beau very entertaining raised some laughs, funny characters, 'im tryna orn (iron) here' lol 4 stars
8/28/07 bill trollip wonderful entertaiment 5 stars
8/07/07 lozzy it was the best film ive ever watched!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!! !!!! so did my mum 5 stars
8/05/07 Charli It Was Wic Wic Wicked! Lol! Couldn't Stop Dacing! 5 stars
7/31/07 Brian Awesome movie! Travolta's less campy Edna and other differences make it fresh and new. 5 stars
7/26/07 Raymond Marble watch the original,then when you know this remake does infact suck,kill yourself 1 stars
7/25/07 Shelby I am in love with movie... up until the night I saw it I was watch clips of it on Youtube!! 5 stars
7/25/07 Carly I love this movie, after I saw it ( the first day it came out) I went to buy the soundtrack 5 stars
7/25/07 Chloe I thought it was SOO good. They did a wonderful job =D 5 stars
7/24/07 Ben Smith It was fantastic. Travolta wasn't as campy as I would have liked, but still so much fun. 5 stars
7/23/07 Tiffany Losco awesome, cute, funny, good singing 5 stars
7/23/07 Kristine Phipany Excellent movie - except for Bynes who completely misses the mark! 4 stars
7/23/07 Lois uplifgting summer fun. Couldn't help dancing in my seat! 5 stars
7/21/07 Dennis pizzo WHAT HAPPENED! A NEW ENDING! NO ARREST! 3 stars
7/21/07 Ron Douglas Overall a good film except for Travolta. Should played the part full of camp as written. 4 stars
7/20/07 Anna Too fun and corny NOT to like! I laughed every minute! 5 stars
7/20/07 Gabby This review is no surprise from someone who works for a grinch who has no heart. 5 stars
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  20-Jul-2007 (PG)
  DVD: 20-Nov-2007



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