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Evenings Out
July 27, 2007

Hooray for Hairspray

Musical brings back kitschy, bawdy, singing and dancing fun

The only place one can find a Hollywood musical as they were intended to be--unabashed and unapologetic--is in Bollywood, India’s gargantuan film industry.

In the last 40 years, the Hollywood musical has gone the way of the rotary dial telephone. Musicals on film have become too self-conscious of their kitschy heritage, their over-the-top settings, and their fabulousness for the sake of fabulousness.

After all, even though we know that no self-respecting gang members would pirouette through the barrios of the Bronx, we still watch West Side Story with eager eyes. And what historical evidence is there that Austrians fleeing the Nazis crossed the Alps on foot singing in perfect nine-part harmony? Yet, those musicals and many more made us weep, made us stand up and clap, and made us fans forever.

Contrast that with recent musicals where the singing and dancing are treated with some sort of disdain, like a party crasher or a stepchild that won’t let the two families blend. In last year’s awful Dreamgirls, the songs were relegated to stage performances or studio recording sessions. Even the relatively decent Chicago treated the song and dance as part of Roxy’s fantasies, trying to be a realistic film which just happened to have a protagonist with musical dreams.

Hip-hip-hooray then for Hairspray, which returns the Hollywood musical to its rowdy roots--kitschy, bawdy, and unashamed to revel in singing and dancing for the heck of it. Based on the Broadway smash hit musical, which in turn was adapted from John Waters’ 1988 film, Hairspray is a work that constantly surprises. The original film was Waters’ foray into a softer, more mainstream kind of cinema. After all, Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, cult classics though they may be, did not make Waters a household name.

Set in 1962, Hairspray is about the transition from the pretend perfection of the 1950s into the turbulence of the 1960s and ’70s. Tracy Turnblad is a plump teen whose obsession is watching the Corny Collins dance show on TV. By a series of odd events and circumstances, Tracy ends up a dancer on the set and promises to integrate the show, which holds “Negro Day” once a month.

The side stories include the story of her overweight mother Edna, who is in need of a healthy does of self-affirmation and self-esteem. TV station manager Velma Von Tussle is a stage mom who uses the Corny Collins show to promote her daughter Amber, a spoiled vamp in her own right.

The race-related subplots are some of the best things Hairspray has to offer. Penny, Tracy’s geeky friend, falls for Seaweed in an era when interracial marriages are still illegal in many states. There’s also Motormouth Maybelle, a record store owner and host of “Negro Day,” who becomes a civil rights leader in her own right.

While predictable in its trajectory, Hairspray delights and surprises in its character development and emotional chutzpah. The casting is simply delicious. As the pudgy Tracy, newcomer Nikki Blonsky is a star. Her energy, vocal dynamism and irrepressible joie de vivre are infectious. She embodies the role perfectly. From the opening “Good Morning Baltimore” to the finale “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” Blonsky charms her way through the film. When the hot Link chooses her over the slim, blonde bombshell Amber, it seems like an obvious choice because Blonsky is unstoppably lovable.

Michelle Pfeiffer returns to her musical roots--she started her Hollywood career in Grease 2--as the villainous Velma. Dressed and coiffed to perfection, Pfeiffer inhabits the highs and lows of Velma’s Machiavellian maneuvering and her eventual meltdown with relish. Pfeiffer knows how to strut it and her comedic timing is impeccable.

After her Oscar-nominated turn as Matron Mama Morton in Chicago, Queen Latifah creates another memorable musical film role as Motormouth Maybelle. Latifah is a joy to watch in her brassier moments, but when she sings the civil rights anthem “I Know Where I’ve Been,” her quiet strength will bring tears to your eyes.

Zac Efron (High School Musical) is charming as Link, the young male ingénue. James Marsden (X-Men) as Corny Collins gives Pfeiffer a run for her money in the too pretty to be true department. Marsden’s cloying host, cheesy smile and snazzy gestures, is a combination between the young Dick Clark and Ryan Seacrest.

Elijah Kelley as Seaweed and Taylor Parks as Little Inez, the two black stars of the dancing show, are fantastic. Kelley’s chemistry with Amanda Bynes, who plays Penny to perfection, is innocence and heat all at once.

Ricki Lake, the original Tracy, and Jerry Stiller, who played her dad in the first film, have nice cameos here; as do director Shankman and musical writer and lyricist Mark Shaiman and Scotty Wittman.

Allison Janney (West Wing, American Beauty) is Prudy, Penny’s religious zealot mother who can’t stand black music. She steals the film whenever she’s onsreen.

Christopher Walken as Tracy’s dad is delightfully charming. Abandoning his preternatural creepiness, Walken plays his role with a sweetness that makes him entirely huggable.

To be honest, I had some apprehensions when John Travolta was named to play Edna, Tracy’s mother.

The original Edna was created by Waters’ leading lady Divine and the stage Edna was inimitably inhabited by Harvey Fierstein, who won a Tony for his brassy and bravura acting. The conceit in all three incarnations is not a drag performance like Tootsie, but rather a man playing a woman with no acknowledgement of that fact whatsoever.

Travolta is a musical film genius. His work in Saturday Night Fever and Grease is a gigantic presence in cinema, not just in musical movies. Here he does not disappoint. He owns Edna and turns her into something originally his own. Large yet curvaceous, Travolta’s zaftig Edna is a vulnerable mess who transforms into a booty-shaking Amazon with equal parts wild humor, bawdy sensuality and innocent femininity. Travolta creates a woman who is utterly human and you will want to reach into the screen to hug her.

Travolta can still dance to stop one’s heart, fat suit, high heels and all. The duet with Walken, “Timeless to Me,” is a cinematic pas de deux for the ages. Ethereal, delightful and so disarmingly sexy, this number is a showstopper in the hands of these two acting veterans.

The music and lyrics by openly gay Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are just delightful. They maintain Waters’ edginess and wit making many of the numbers memorable for the ages.

Adam Shankman, who directs and choreographs the film, is a revelation here. He knows his musicals well and the best things Shankman does is to let a musical be a musical--he doesn’t try to hide the songs and dance under some legitimating cinematic device--and he stays out of the way of the material, letting the characters, story, politics and emotional journeys speak for themselves.

The out Shankman, who has had a less than stellar directing career thus far--The Wedding Planner, Cheaper by the Dozen 2, The Pacifier--nails this film. The choreography is zany and dynamic and his directing is strong and measured. He also throws in homages to musical classics like Sound of Music, West Side Story and Funny Girl. Working with his entire production team the look of the film is brilliant. Underneath the pastel shades and glossy cinematography runs a deep river of passion and humanity.

Produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (Chicago, Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows) Hairspray would be nothing without the visionary genius of John Waters. Long a cult and indie filmmaker, Waters has never sold out his unique voice and outsider authenticity. Here, too, he tells the truth as he sees it. Yes, Hairspray is sweet and optimistic, yet it is subversive, even in 2007. (Incidentally, when one sees Waters’ cameo in the opening number, we know instantly that nothing has been sweetened just to sell it to a larger audience.) Taking on the issues of racial integration and the acceptance of fat as fabulous still seem revolutionary.

First of all, in this summer of blockbusters, what no one talks about is how white summer cinema is--Harry Potter, Spiderman, et al. It is refreshing to see a summer movie where half the cast is black. The interracial love between Penny and Seaweed is downright subversive not just because Hollywood refuses to show substantial images of the sort, let alone in the context of teenage love, but also because we still hang on to quaint notions about who should be allowed to love who. And that the fat girl gets the skinny, hot-to-trot boy is practically unheard of in Hollywood unless it’s as some sort of joke where she loses all the weight and becomes anorexic to claim her place in society.

Tracy is fat from start to finish and never once does her fabulousness wane. As an aside, the cynic in me wonders what will happen with a fabulous find like Blonsky. Will she be reduced--her mega talent, star quality and all--to playing the best-friend sidekick? It will be hard for her to find leading-lady work in movies not made by John Waters, and that in itself proves how far Hollywood has yet to go. It would be truly stunning to see her play Cinderella in a live action remake of the film or even Juliet in the Bard’s classic. After all, only when the fat fairy princess gets the anorexic prince in a Disney film will we know that such size barriers have been truly obliterated.

Given that almost everyone involved behind the scenes on the film is gay, it is not accidental that Hairspray is a metaphor for the current civil rights struggles for gay and lesbian equality. When Tracy says to her mom, “People who are different, their time is coming,” we know exactly what Waters is speaking to.

Having adopted her campaign song, perhaps Hillary Clinton, or even John Edwards and Barack Obama need to adopt Hairspray as their campaign film and Tracy’s line as their electioneering slogan. Hairspray is a call to all who are different to demand that our time has indeed come.


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