A fun, colorful musical with likable characters, enthusiastic acting, great dancing, snappy tunes, and an overall joyful tone. A “feel good” movie in the best sense of the term.
Hairspray is the wholesome (well, not “Disney wholesome”, but wholesome nevertheless) story of a plus-sized teenage girl in the early 1960s who dreams of stardom in local afternoon television. Every afternoon “when the clock strikes four”, Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) and her best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) tune in to “The Corny Collins Show”, a teen beat dance show that’s sort of like a Baltimore version of American Bandstand. Tracy hopes to win the heart of teen dreamboat Link Larkin (Zac Efron) , who’s a dancer on the show. Her mother, agoraphobic laundress Edna (John Travolta in drag and a fat suit), and her father Wilbur (Christopher Walken), the owner of his own joke shop, have differing opinions about Tracy’s quest for local fame and romance. This being a musical, Tracy makes her dream come true – but not without learning a lot of lessons taught in song and dance about love, race relations, and being a Size 60 in a Size 2 world.
In her quest to learn the latest dances, Tracy befriends a black student, Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) and his mother, Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah). Mabel hosts the once-a-month “Negro Day” on The Corny Collins Show, the only day that black people are allowed to be seen on local television. But even that once a month is one time too many for the evil station manager Velma von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer), who wants the show to exists only as a spotlight for her daughter Amber (Brittany Snow). Before the movie ends, rest assured that The Corny Collins Show will be integrated, true love will find a way, and you’ll be humming at least two or three snappy tunes in your head for the next few days.
I have enjoyed Hairspray in all three of its incarnations – the original 1989 John Waters film starring Ricky Lake and Divine, the 2002 Broadway musical with Harvey Fierstein, and now (the subject of this entry) this new 2007 version – a movie version of the Broadway musical. This new one is definitely my favorite.
From the first scene of this movie, I could tell I was going to enjoy it. Hairspray opens with a shot that echoes the opening shot of West Side Story: the camera starts high above the city of Baltimore. A drum beat begins. A few notes chime in. The camera moves closer in, down into a row of apartment buildings. It glides down the street as the music gets louder, into an apartment. We see a teenage girl waking up, getting dressed (all in tasteful extreme closeups of her hands, her hair, etc). Then, in one shot, the girl turns around, and we see her face for the first time as she sings, “Good Morning, Baltimore!”, the opening number.
As she sings about the joys of the city (“the rats on the street / all dance ’round my feet’) while dancing on her way to school, the film establishes the time period via a newspaper (May 1962) and its faux technicolor tone. Right away I was reminded of the extreme, over-saturated technicolor feel of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and other movie musicals of the 1950s, with their color-coordinated outfits. Everything color in Hairspray is fully loaded, something you just don’t see in movies nowadays. And even though it’s not shot in actual Technicolor (I doubt that would even be physically possibly anymore), it has that same deep color feel.
This movie has no slow spots. And unlike most Broadway-to-Hollywood adaptations, almost all of the songs came over intact. The only two songs from the Broadway version that I missed were “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” and “The Big Dollhouse”. Two new songs were added, “The New Girl In Town” and “Lady’s Choice”, both of which fit in perfectly fine. I strongly suspect “Lady’s Choice” was added just so that teen heartthrob Zac Efron (of High School Musical fame) would have a additional solo number (the other being “It Takes Two”).
John Travolta, all decked out in a female fat suit to play Edna Turnblad, is surprisingly good. He plays the role somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as it is meant to be, but with just enough realism and feeling that Edna comes across as a real character that we can root for. When she jumps out onto the dance floor to join in the show-stopping finale “You Can’t Stop The Beat”, I complete forgot that it was a man in a fat suit (despite him throwing in an hysterical visual homage to his role in Pulp Fiction) and thrilled to see Edna get her groove on.
I’ve seen this movie three times now, and it is so much fun. As a bonus, the two-disk “Shake and Shimmy” special edition (I have the Blu-Ray high definition version, but I understand the regular DVD set contains the same materials) includes a ton of behind-the-scene footage and interviews. There are full documentaries on choreography, casting, costuming, and sets. Plus there is a wonderful documentary that traces the development of the Broadway version from conception to opening night, including differences between the stage musical and this movie version.
You just have to see this movie. Seriously, it is a blast from the first minute to the last. It’s fast, funny, and timely. They don’t make many good musicals any more, but this one is a welcome respite. For those who enjoyed the newest “High School Musical” , as well as those that enjoyed the Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney musicals of the 30s, Hairspray absolutely fills the bill. You can’t stop the beat!