A film review by Craig J. Koban
Rank: # 15
2007, PG, 116 mins.
Tracy Turnblad: Nikki Blonsky / Edna Turnbla:
John Travolta / Velma Von Tussle:
Michelle Pfeiffer / Wilbur Turnblad:
Christopher Walken / Penny Pingleton:
Amanda Bynes / Corny Collins:
James Marsden / Motormouth Maybelle:
Queen Latifah / Link Larkin: Zac Efron / Mr. Pinky: Jerry Stiller
HAIRSPRAY is a bright, sugarcoated, candy colored, and robustly entertaining film musical that enveloped me within its first few minutes and never let go. Its free- wheeling, toe-tapping energy is utterly infectious. As an exercise in playful rambunctious energy, whimsicality, and unapologetic joviality, the film is a grand bit of crowd-pleasing spectacle. It's as sweet as a lollipop and as light as the mist from an aerosol can.
HAIRSPRAY pleasantly harkens back to some of the best musicals, which wisely embraced their carefree and sassy spirit. I defy anyone’s humanity that does not have fun with HAIRSPRAY; only diehard cynics and cinematic Scrooges will not find it to be a snarky and mercilessly enjoyable time at the movies. And - God help me for saying this - but the fact that it has John Travolta in drag dancing with Christopher Walken in a romantic duet should not dissuade you in the slightest.
Of course John Travolta should be in this! He did - after all - create a pop culture frenzy with his sizzling disco theatrics in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and later gave his fans more in GREASE, one of the most beloved of all musicals. And - of course - Travolta in drag should not be the red herring of HAIRSPRAY that far, far too many critics would love to point out. After all, his character of Edna has a proud and renowned history of being played by men in drag. Sure, in HAIRSPRAY Travolta may not be the suave, debonair, and guilelessly macho figure that he showed of in GREASE and FEVER, but he nevertheless shows that he can still be a showstopper. Like everything else in the film, Travolta’s refreshing spunk and pure cornball appeal is done with a tactful, note perfect moderation. HAIRSPRAY is a camp-filled, unfussy riot that exudes childlike lightheadedness. Travolta as a woman is not a detriment, but oddly an absolute necessity.
Much like 2005's musical comedy, THE PRODUCERS, HAIRSPRAY is another in one of those remakes of a remake. It first saw the light of day as a 1988 comedy made by the frequently inaccessible John Waters, who made a real notorious name for himself in the 1970's by making transgressive cult films. Movies likes PINK FLAMINGOES and DESPERATE LIVING lovingly pushed the boundaries of good movie taste. FLAMINGOES alone represented Waters at his most esoteric and absurd, and by that I refer to its notorious closing moment, an unbroken shot of a dog defecating and one character eating its poo. Yeah...that inaccessible.
So, in pure hindsight, when his HAIRSPRAY was released in 1988, it marked a clear departure for the flamboyant director. It was his effort to go a bit more mainstream (it was his first feature to be rated PG, most of his other efforts were given a self-imposed X rating for their crude content). However more innocent and simplistic HAIRSPRAY was, it still retained some of Waters’ trademark quirkiness and inventiveness. Like Mel Brooks’ original 1968 comedy of THE PRODUCERS, HAIRSPRAY eventually saw the light of day as a Broadway musical and went on to sweep the 2003 Tony Awards. Now comes HAIRSPRAY the film musical which is, again, a remake of a remake, and in that highly rare genre of film, it's categorical the best.
This new film musical has an astonishing forward momentum of musical energy and liveliness that does not waiver throughout. The opening number sets the film’s joyous level of sassiness. It’s 1962 in Baltimore and a plump, robustly cute and bubbly Tracy Turnblad (in a star making performance by newcomer Nikki Blonsky) wakes up from her bed and jubilantly declares to the world her yearning to be a big, big star. Her enthusiasm and confidence is limitless and matched only by her boundless charm.
She sings "Good Morning, Baltimore", one of the many of a handful of the film’s great song and dance numbers, as a triumphant tribute to one girl’s love and admiration for her city and place in it. This opening sequence rightfully sets the whole film’s uplifting and contagious vibe; this is not going to celebrate the nihilism and cynicism that too often permeates modern movies; this will be a commemoration of frivolous merriment. Make no mistake about it - Blonsky is a real whipper-snapper that is impossible to hate.
Tracy has big plans. She absolutely worships an American Bandstand clone named "The Corny Collins Show", which in turn is named after its host, the very appropriately named Corny Collins (James Marsden, in a very funny and effective performance). Tracy and her best friend in the whole world, Penny Pingleton (in a cute performance by Amanda Bynes, who seems to spend the film orally fixated to a sucker) slave away with time wasting monotony at high school everyday. Each class is like an endurance test of fortitude and patience. The real prize of spending a day at school is watching Corny Collins and his group of teenie-boppers dance away on his after-school dance program. The swingers on that show represent a life that Tracy wants.
Unfortunately for her, she has some very large roadblocks along the way. It’s not due to her lack of talent (she has the pipes and the dance moves that eclipses anyone else on the show), but she is not a slender bombshell that only appears to be on the show. Also, Tracy faces a lot of opposition in the form of her equally pudgy and fiercely conservative mother, Edna (Travolta in drag, and unmitigated delight).
Edna is the kind of homemaker that prefers to stay at home...a lot...and does not like the public eye (when she finally makes it outside late in the film, she states, "There’s so much...air out here, can I not go back inside to a stuffy room?"). She sees the spark in her daughter’s eyes, but she has her own plans for her. "Dancing is not your future," she tells her early on. "One day, you're going to own Edna's Oxidental Laundry." What she fails to comprehend is that - gee whiz - maybe Tracy does not want to carry on her mother’s business. She passionately screams back to her mom, "I want to be famous!" At least her dad, Wilbur (Christopher Walken, playing his part with characteristic Walkenian appeal and a geeky affability, minus his usual creepiness factor), supports his daughter.
Tracy faces other obstacles. One day good ol’ Corny Collins has an open tryout. Tracy cuts class to go, but all of her abilities are matter-of-factly dismissed by the show’s producer, Velma Von Tussle (played with a perfectly hateful vileness and lecherousness by Michelle Pfeiffer). You see, she has big plans for her daughter, Amber (Brittany Snow), a miraculously untalented dancer, whom she wants to crown Miss Teen Hairspray. To make her an even more spiteful creature of hate, Velma is also someone that is trying to boycott the show’s "Negro Tuesdays" that allows for blacks to come on the show and dance, albeit segregated from the white kids. These Tuesdays are planned by Maybelle (Queen Latifah), the owner of a record shop. She fears that her friends and family’s days are numbered on Corny’s show.
However, Tracy learns a lot of new - and risqué - dance moves from her school’s fellow black students, whom she hooks up with in detention. One of them, played by Elijah Kelley, takes an instant liking to Tracy and begins to show her some slick moves, the kind that - in the 1950's - Elvis was performing on live TV, much to the scorn of parents and moral conservatives (granted, Elvis never spanked himself in a stage performance like Tracy does).
Corny spots her one day a digs her moves so much that he gives her a shot, much to the disapproval of Velma. Soon the cast iron witch takes a tougher control of the show, so much to the point that she cancels Negro Tuesdays. This, of course, makes Tracy look at herself and make some soul searching choices. She can either shamelessly continue her overnight celebrity status on the show in attempts at trying to win the boy of her dreams, teen hot-throb Link Larkin (played by Zach Effron, looking like the bi-product of a three way between Superman, Elvis Presley, and Ray Liotta) or she can risk it all by supporting her black friends on a march and protest of the show.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect about HAIRSPRAY is that it contains noteworthy themes of racial injustice and intolerance, especially at a time when the Civil Rights movement was just started to break wide open. The film deals with the issues of social unrest and it does a subtle job of even infusing the message within many of the song lyrics. Of course, to criticize the film for glossing over the larger history of this delicate time misses the point. A solemn and overtly serious handling of the film’s subtext would have buried the liveliness of the film. A film like this walks the delicate balancing act between being a depressing and euphorically uplifting. Without being too heavy-handed with the material, the film finds the right equilibrium between the two. It never becomes pandering, nor a whitewashed, look at history.
However, this film will not be remembered for its legitimate civic lesson on equal rights and racial bigotry during a fragile time; rather, it should be appreciated for its exhilarating potency and delightful capriciousness. The film has a plethora of fantastic song and dance numbers and most of the cast seems equal to the task. An early sequence with the conniving Velma shows her cheerful wickedness (Pfeiffer really has redefined herself here; she plays a cold-hearted villain so well), and Elijah Kelley shows off his acrobatic and groovy dance moves to great appreciation. He is a real talent.
Of course, every number that includes Blonsky is joyous and goofy. However, my personal favourite has to be a love ballet between - yes - Walken and Travolta, where the two dance the night away proclaiming their admiration for one another. Amazingly, the fact that it is performed by two men does not illicit instant groans of discomfort. Walken, playing somewhat against type as a nerd, is such an innocently likeable presence and Travolta does such a virtuoso job of losing himself in the role of Edna that you kind of forget the male star baggage and buy the relationship between the two characters. Seeing Walken gracefully strutting alongside the equally fluid and smooth Travolta (even in pounds of fat makeup) is one of the film’s sublime pleasures. When Wilbur and Edna proclaim their mutual adoring of one another, it's noble-hearted and sweet, not...how shall I say...icky.
Most important among HAIRSPRAY’s accomplishments is its amiable and bouncy fun factor. As a fast paced, buoyant, and rousing throwback to the classic, primary colored musicals of the 50's, HAIRSPRAY wallows in a refreshing sensation of its own unpretentiousness. With fever pitched dance numbers, bright production design, a cast of immeasurable likeability, and a serious message of racial tolerance that is not hammered down too hard, HAIRSPRAY is a wondrous blast and vivaciousness and shameless exuberance. Newcomer Nikki Blonsky steals every scene (she's a cauldron of happiness), but it's also hard to overlook John Travolta's very publicized part of playing a middle-aged and overweight female homemaker. Although initially seeing him in a dress and silk stockings is jarring and momentarily cringe worthy, you quickly kind of loose yourself in the spirit of his performance. It - much like the rest of the film - is a unapologetic hoot. HAIRSPRAY is a wonderfully glossy and old-fashioned screen musical that relishes with its unthreatening level of warmheartedness. It’s simply one of 2007's most fun-filled entertainments.