|Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Friday, 20 July 2007|
Musicals have become as rare as sequels are frequent. This is a bad thing—musicals have greater joy-inducing power than any kind of movie other than an especially good comedy (rare these days, too). “Chicago” was a very good movie musical, but “Hairspray” is better. It’s ablaze with so much energy the screen practically ripples from the impact of the images. It has no great songs, just good ones, and no tap dancing (which I personally missed) but lots of energetic teenage dancing.
The original source is the 1988 movie by John Waters—who appears here in an appropriate cameo before the opening song ends. That was turned into a Broadway musical with the song music by Marc Shaiman and the lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman. All are set in early 1960s Baltimore, and all mix a joyous high school musical with the civil rights movement, an unlikely combination which, nonetheless, worked well in the first movie and in this one, too.
The movie opens with a bang with pudgy, happy teenager Tracy Turblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky) erupting from her bed with a song about how she loves Baltimore on her lips. She says good morning to her stay-at-home mother Edna (John Travolta) and her laid-back father Wilbur (Christopher Walken), who runs an adjacent novelty shop. She sings her way down the streets, ending up at high school with her best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes). She’s again sent to detention for a minor infraction—usually it’s “inappropriate hair height” (remember the title)—and is delighted to find the detention room full of black teenagers, bopping like mad, learning new dance steps. She’s especially impressed by Seaweed (Eljah Kelley), who’s also impressed by her enthusiastic moves—she gets his dance immediately. She and her detention friends are looking forward to appearing on “The Corny Collins Show,” the local equivalent of “American Bandstand, hosted by Corny (James Marsden) himself.
However, Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer), who manages the station, insists that Negro Day be abandoned. She’s casually racist, and doesn’t want any obstacles to her daughter Amber (Brittany Snow) to winning the upcoming Miss Teenage Hairspray contest on the show. And since she’s the manager of the TV station broadcasting the show, her whims are cast in iron. When Trudy is indeed chosen, by Collin no less, to appear on the show, Velma puts her high-heeled foot down.
Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah), Seaweed’s big, booming mother, runs the local record store and has been the hostess of Negro Day. She realizes that racism has now made itself manifest right before her eyes; even though Collins himself is an enthusiastic supporter of Negro Day (and of Trudy), the show is cancelled. And Velma sees to it that Trudy’s appearance is cancelled, too. Especially since Link (Zac Efron), heretofore Amber’s sweety, is showing interest in Trudy, just like Seaweed and Penny are attracted to one another. “I want that chubby Communist girl off the show!” Velma insists, and so it is done.
Trudy courageously decides to join the protest march that Maybelle and others are arranging. Maybelle warns her that “a whole lot of ugly is comin’ your way from a whole lot of stupid,” but Trudy hangs in there—and gets into trouble with the police. Can Velma be overcome? Can Trudy get back to the TV show without being caught by the cops? What will become of Negro Day? Will Edna ever be comfortable leaving the house? Will Trudy find true love with Link? Am I kidding?
“Hairspray” is dynamite—and knows it. The three-black-girls singing group here, seen frequently in the background on signs with live-action footage, are called The Dynamites. The movie was directed and choreographed (is this the first time that pairing has occurred since the heyday of Gene Kelly?) by Adam Shankman,
Shankman’s career as a director has been mostly undistinguished, except for “The Wedding Planner” (2001). His other features include Bringing Down the House” (2003, also with Queen Latifah), “The Pacifier” and “Cheaper by the Dozen 2” (both 2005). All of these films featured a kind of stylization similar to musicals; maybe this is what he should have been doing all along. “Hairspray” is lively, funny and ingratiating; it’s hard not to keep smiling through the whole film. And the dances, while nowhere near, say, Hermes Pan level, are as energetic and imaginative as the film itself. The movie seems of a unit—as varied as the cast is, they’re all on the same page, all enthusiastically engaged in this project.
It’s bizarre, of course, that John Travolta, born to be a musical star, returns to musicals as a fat suburban housewife, wearing a body suit and elaborate prosthetic makeup. The movie is bowing to a short-lived but clearly-established “Hairspray” tradition: in the original movie, Edna was played by drag performer Divine, and on Broadway by the outed gay Harvey Fierstein. Travolta’s neither gay nor a drag performer, but he throws himself into the role with infectious enthusiasm. Toward the end, he does a number, “You’re Timeless to Me,” with Christopher Walken, who also should have been making musicals all along. (He showed his dancing legs in “Pennies from Heaven.”) Walken himself is low-key this time around, appropriately enough for a man who runs a novelty shop, occasionally demonstrating his wares.
Michelle Pfeiffer finally gets another chance to sing—her breakthrough role was in “Grease 2” (1982), and memorably sang atop a piano in “The Fabulous Baker Boys” (1989). Here, she is clearly having a grand time playing the biggest bitch in Baltimore, and gets to do several songs. Also, some kind of apotheosis must be reached here: finally, at long last, Michelle Pfeiffer gets to have several scenes with a rubber chicken.
But the movie stands or falls with whoever plays Trudy—and “Hairspray” not only stands, it towers. This is as clearly and certain a “star-is-born” performance as was Jennifer Hudson’s Oscar-winning debut in “Dreamgirls” (2006). The original movie did something of the same for Ricki Lake (who appears here in a brief cameo), but Blonsky seems even better to me—and she sings and dances, too. She’s adorable, funny, even sexy; lively, confident and thrumming with sheer drive and energy.
Queen Latifah is perfect casting as Motormouth Maybelle, and gets a good couple of songs herself. It’s a bit surprising that Corny Collins is likeable—usually this kind of character is an opportunistic weasel—but Marsden, like the entire cast, throws himself into his role with enthusiasm and conviction. Others doing very well—nobody does badly—include Allison Janney as Penny’s terrified mother, Brittany Snow (from the series “American Dreams,” itself clearly inspired by Waters’ “Hairspray”) is fine as Amber, who may not be quite as much of a bitch as her mom. Jerry Stiller, in Walters’ version, is here again, though in a different role.
Shankman gets very creative. Zac Efron croons a song to a photo of Trudy—and the photo sings along with him. Walker and Travolta’s number includes them briefly costumed as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The entire movie bristles with satisfying, entertaining invention.
The color is vivid, looking a lot like a movie that was actually shot, and not just set, in the 1960s. When civil rights elements manifest themselves, they are treated seriously—but lightly and gracefully. It’s only partly a message movie, but it’s sincere about its messages.
Mostly, though, it’s a supremely confident, old-fashioned musical, with singing, dancing, attractive characters, hissable villains, and lots and lots of songs. There are so many that the lengthy end credits include four more. And most audiences will quite happily sit through these credits, since the movie keeps on entertaining up until the screen goes black.
“Hairspray” is easily one of the best movies of 2007 so far—my guess is that it will still be one of the best when the new year comes.