“Hairspray” is easily one of the most infectious, fun films I have seen in years. I defy even the most hard-hearted musical hater to keep his or her foot from bouncing to the melody of the very enjoyable musical score.
Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky) wakes up every day excited to go to school because it means she will only have a few hours to go before running home to catch her favorite television show, “The Corny Collins Show”, a local “American Bandstand” type show, is on. She and her friend, Penny (Amanda Bynes), rush home after school to watch Corny (James Marsden) croon his way through a selection of great songs and introduce the rest of his dancers. Among these teens, all of which go to Tracy’s school, are Amber (Brittany Snow), the daughter of the station manager, Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer), a former beauty queen who now will stop at nothing for her daughter to follow in her footsteps. But Tracy only has eyes for Link Larkin (Zac Efron), the good-looking lead crooner and boyfriend of Amber. One day, Tracy hears they will be holding an audition to replace a girl who will be taking nine months off. Her mother, Edna (John Travolta in drag), discourages her because she doesn’t want her daughter upset, Tracy is a big girl and girls like her just don’t get on television. But her dad, Wilbur (Christopher Waken), owner of the joke shop under their apartment encourages her to go for it and Tracy rushes down to the station. Velma quickly dismisses her. Tracy ends up I detention and meets a bunch of African American students who are trying to pass the time dancing and singing. One of these students, Seaweed (Elijah Kelly) shows Tracy some moves, which she quickly learns. The next day, Corny Collins hosts the hop at their high school and Tracy decides to do the dance she picked up from Seaweed, with his full consent. Corny hires her on the spot and she becomes a popular, regular fixture on his show. Much to Velma’s chagrin. Once a month, the Corny Collins Show hosts “Negro Day” and Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) takes over, bringing in a group of black students to dance. But Tracy doesn’t understand why they have to remain segregated and tries to help change things.
“Hairspray” is the latest in a growing sub-genre in Hollywood; the popular film adapted to Broadway musical and then filmed again with the Broadway score. Director Adam Shankman has created a film with such a joyous spirit it is completely infectious. Is this the same director who worked on “Cheaper By The Dozen 2” and “The Pacifier”? Has he been holding out on us? It seems impossible the same director made all of these films. “Hairspray” is really good.
The entire cast is enjoyable and adds to the overall feel of the film. But you have to admit watching Christopher Walken play the husband of an overweight John Travolta is worth the price of admission alone. Christopher Walken always appears to be enjoying himself, whether he is doing a good job of creating his character or not, making him one of the actors I always look forward to watching in a film. He has done his share of stinkers, and doesn’t always do such a great job of creating an interesting, different character, but he has a good time and this makes him all the more watch able. I have seen the trailer for his next film, “Balls of Fury”, probably a hundred times and it always makes me laugh to see Walken in his Fu Manchu outfit.
There is a scene late in the film when Wilbur and Edna dance together in their backyard, fantasizing about different types of dances. In one of these fantasies, they start to dance like Astaire and Rogers. It is simply hilarious to see Travolta, in drag, wearing a fat suit, and dancing like Ginger Rogers, complete with silvery gown, in Walken’s Fred Astaire hands.
Travolta is also quite good. He takes the role, historically played by the likes of Harvey Fierstein and Bruce Vilanch, and makes it interesting and even a little subtle. Edna has a phobia and has holed up in their family home for years. As the owner of Edna’s Continental Laundry, she does laundry all day, a business she tells Tracy she can own. One day. If she is lucky. But Edna’s clients come to her, so she never has to leave the house. She makes allusions to the fact this added to her weight gain, but Wilbur also comments that he has always loved her, preferring size 50 women, so I think her size has been a constant throughout her life, and Travolta brings this to the character, making us feel her desperation, her subtle loss of hope even if she won’t show it.
I was a little surprised by how little singing and dancing Travolta does. He has a nice number with Nikki Blonsky, when Edna’s daughter takes her out of the house for the first time. Later, Travolta has the dance number with Walker, and he/ she joins in the big finale “You Can’t Stop The Beat”. We have seen Travolta dance on film, this is how he became a star, so I expected more of this. Perhaps it was too difficult, or too out of character to have Edna do much.
The real find in the cast is Nikki Blonsky, a newcomer. The young lady is about as far removed from other teen actresses like Lindsay Lohan or Hilary Duff as you can get. She has a ‘full figure’ and more talent in her pinky than Lohan. Her performance is so exuberant you can’t help but smile.
The film opens with Tracy singing “Good morning Baltimore”, a love letter to the city where the film is set. At one point, she even serenades the rats eating out of the garbage cans in front of a restaurant and the waves happily at the neighborhood flasher.
It is refreshing to see Blonsky, who is anything but thin, playing a character who doesn’t even seem to realize she is big. No one at her school ever mentions it, she never seems to care, and in fact embraces it. After she appears on “The Corny Collins Show”, and becomes a local celebrity, Mr. Pinky (Jerry Stiller) calls and wants her to become a spokesperson for his Plus Size dress shop. She doesn’t care and we don’t care. It is refreshing to see such a thing in a major Hollywood motion picture.
And she can dance. She is in the majority of the dance numbers and helps to bring a more modern style of dance to the show, a style she first learned from Seaweed (Elijah Kelly), an African American student, and all of his friends. Tracy gets detention from one of her teachers and she reluctantly walks down the hall. Then, when she enters the detention room, she finds a number of African American students dancing together, trying to help the time pass. She immediately embraces them and they learn to accept her. It is a nice moment because it says something about the era; the detention room is filled with African Americans, and Tracy is the lone Caucasian. It is also a good moment because she doesn’t care about the color of their skin than they don’t care that she is overweight.
In fact, no one seems to care about Tracy’s size except for Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer), the former Miss Baltimore Crabs, who now runs one of the few television stations in Baltimore. But Velma dislikes a lot of things, so it is difficult to tell if she really dislikes Tracy’s size or dislikes Tracy because she isn’t a perfect white girl, like her daughter, Amber (Brittany Snow). Velma dislikes the fact she has to turn over “The Corny Collins Show” to Motormouth Maybelle once a month; she would prefer to see everything as white as bread. All the time. And Pfeiffer does a good job of making this character interesting and fun to watch. Essentially the villain, Velma is also the broadest of the characters, but Pfeiffer manages to pull the performance back a little and make it les cartoony than you might expect.
James Marsden stars as Corny Collins, the host of the “American Bandstand”-esque show at the center of the film. At first, he seems to be yet another local celebrity who is entirely too full of himself, but as the civil rights themes of the film become more prevalent, he takes an active part in the integration of his own show. Marsden is a very good looking actor and his smile beams when he first appears on camera, perfectly fitting the persona we would imagine for a local celebrity with his own television show.
Queen Latifah makes another memorable appearance in a musical. In “Hairspray”, she plays Motormouth Maybelle, the owner of a record store, the mother of Seaweed, and the host of “Negro Day” on “The Corny Collins Show”. She begrudgingly accepts her role in the universe, until she receives a little push from Velma and some inspiration from Tracy. Then, she becomes a leading force in the civil rights movement in her community.
There is another nice moment depicting the era and the changing of the times. On one episode of “The Corny Collins Show”, Amber and two of her backup singers sing a sweet song, using dance moves popular in the 50s. The next day, Motormouth Maybelle features three African American singers singing the same song, but with a lot more feeling and better dance moves. This does not escape Velma’s attention.
Zac Efron (“High School Musical”) plays Linc Larkin, the lead singer on the show and Tracy’s idol. He has a likable charm and soon notices Tracy at their school. Elijah Kelly rounds out the cast of young actors playing Seaweed. Kelly is a dead ringer for a young Sammy Davis Jr. and has a likable energy matching much of the rest of the cast.
“Hairspray” has a lot of fun depicting the era, making fun of the bad (we see two pregnant women in a bar, smoking and drinking) and embracing the good. There is a great moment before the television show starts taping when all of the performers are clouded by hairspray, primping and preening, preparing to go on. Its also fun to watch the taping of “The Corny Collins Show”, something that seems so of the era, yet could easily be done in this day and age. The film has a lot of fun depicting the era, as the styles change from the more safe 50s, slowly morphing into the more loose and freewheeling 60s. All of these moments help to give the already buoyant film even more energy, even more fun, and even more laughs.
“Hairspray” is just a lot of fun.