reviewed by Enrico Banson
Thankfully, I was proved wrong. Big time. The latest rendition of Hairspray is infectious and catchy enough to get the toes tapping of even the most skeptical of filmgoers. Unlike its movie musical predecessors, Hairspray isn’t afraid to sing and dance out loud, embracing the genre and all its glory—like one of those pastel-tinted musicals of the sixties starring Elvis Presley or Pat Boone crossed with a Fred Astaire extravaganza. Maybe even add a bit of those 60’s variety shows like "Laugh-In" or "The Ed Sullivan Show."
The two most recent and successful stage-to-screen adaptations pale in comparison; Chicago seemed ashamed to be a musical in the first place and Dreamgirls masked its musical identity behind the device of pop music. Here, Hairspray isn’t ashamed at all, like the story’s plump heroine Tracy Turnblad, energetically played by newcomer Nikki Blonksy (and Ricki Lake in the original film). She’s big, bouncy and full of life.
There’s a wonderful number titled “Welcome to the 60’s” that evokes images of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, with its pastel costumes and street-corner moves. Marc Shaiman’s enjoyable songs are all a pastiche of the music of the times and its definitely one of the movie’s strong points. Musical scores rarely translate well on screen. Thankfully Shaiman’s score does to great, storytelling effect. Perhaps this cross-breeding of stage and film is what makes the movie work. On stage, I always thought the show felt like a film, with its ingenious way of staging things like movie stills. The movie version makes it all come full circle.
What makes it undeniably fun is watching a game cast of actors play their parts with glee. Michelle Pfeiffer is a hoot as the villainous Velma von Tussle, and John Travolta makes Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s big-bosomed Mama who’s traditionally played by a man, such a tender, loveable character. When Edna finally struts her stuff, you can’t believe that it’s a man in a fat suit because Travolta’s Edna has so much grace and poise. Shankman choreographs it well, but Travolta makes Edna his own. The rest of the supporting cast is delightful: James Marsden’s Corny Collins is a surprise — who would have thought Cyclops could sing? Allison Janney, always good in anything she does, makes a small part a memorable one. Queen Latifah makes the best of Motormouth Maybelle, a role that’s always been part Aretha Franklin. Christopher Walken as Edna’s husband Wilbur perfectly showcases his talents as a real song-and-dance man. Aside from Blonsky, the teen cast is sadly overshadowed by their adult (and far more experienced) counterparts. Amanda Bynes simply can’t sing and Zac Efron just doesn’t have that strong of a presence to pull off leading man, albeit a very young one.
The film’s incessant cheerfulness gets a bit ingratiating in the second act especially when it gets deep into the racial issues, with some numbers that feel forced compared to the breeziness of the first and last half of the movie. Still, it’s a flaw easy to overlook.
Underneath the beehive hairdos and the brisk air of nostalgia, Hairspray is a message movie that remarkably weaves some strong issues like community and acceptance into song—and all with a heavy dose of fun. Yet what’s fascinating is how wonderfully unabashed the movie is about being an off-kiltered entertainment piece, especially during the summer movie season. It’s a film easy to dismiss, one to dish out to lovers of the genre, but it’s hard not to embrace it, even if it’s going against the mainstream. It’s not as raunchy and racy as Jon Waters would probably have it — think of it as Jon Waters-it-down. Casting teen-friendly actors like Amanda Bynes and Zac Efron and earning a family-friendly PG rating, it rarely hints at the possibility of Waters’ vulgarity. It could also simply be the sign of the times. Even though all of Hairspray’s reincarnations possess Jon Waters’ flamboyance and gay sensibilities, this is truly a movie for everybody because it maintains the heart of the earlier versions: it’s not how you look while moving to the beat, it’s how the beat makes you feel.
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