Considering the moviesical fad that is sweeping Hollywood (Rent, The Phantom of the Opera, Dreamgirls and soon, Sweeney Todd,) it’s no surprise they chose to bring the Broadway hit Hairspray back to the silver screen. But unlike the aforementioned films, Hairspray not only has to compete with its stage rendition, but also with the 1988 John Waters cult classic film. You’d expect a movie turned musical turned movie-musical to lose some of its charm in translation, but Adam Shankman’s Hairspray is as big and beautiful as ever.
It’s hard to say exactly what about the chubby Tracy Turnblad captured us back in the eighties, maybe it way she ironed her hair without fear or how she danced her heart out in a pink satin dress covered in roaches, Either way, she became an iconic figure to all the Care Bear-watching, hypercolor shirt-wearing girls of the era. Any doubts as to whether Nikki Blonsky could take on the role, however, vanish during Hairspray’s opening number, “Good Morning Baltimore,” which takes us thorough Tracy’s morning routine, for instance, hitching a ride with the garbage man when she misses the bus for school. The song immediately sets the toe-tapping tone for the rest of the film, as Shankman cuts scenes along to the beat in a fun stylistic tribute to the musicals of the sixties.
Meanwhile, school passes slowly for Tracy and her pig-tailed best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes), who rush home for “The Corny Collins Show," a local dance show a la American Bandstand featuring picture-perfect regulars dubbed “the nicest kids in town.” As Tracy moons over Elvis-wannabe Link Larkin (Zac Efron), Link’s dance partner Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow) and her cougar mother Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer) scheme to ensure Amber’s win at the upcoming Miss Hairspray contest. Considering Velma is the station manager and Amber has won three years in a row, it shouldn’t be too difficult, but neither of them foresees the very LARGE competition heading Amber’s way. After Tracy picks up some sexy dance moves from fellow detention-veteran Seaweed (Elijah Kelly), she sashays her way into a regular spot on the show. Tracy becomes an overnight sensation (even Link is starting to notice her) and her portly mother Edna (John Travolta) couldn’t be more proud, but all Tracy wants is to “make every day Negro day,” and dance alongside her new friends.
There’s no question that this version of Hairspray will never gain the fanatic following that the Waters’ original earned in the eighties. It’s not as edgy, it’s not as unique and it’s just a little too “family-friendly” for teens to embrace as their own. While the messages about acceptance regardless of skin-color or weight are universal and eternal, the film takes them to an almost preachy level instead of letting the story speak for itself. Meanwhile, we’ve lost some of the original picture's romance to the PG rating, so songs like “Without Love” don’t work as well. Still, Hairspray's surrealistic world lends itself perfectly to the musical form, and, unlike other stage to screen adaptations, it doesn’t feel awkward when characters suddenly break out into song. Ultimately, the flick may not become a cult classic, but it’s sure to be the feel-good movie of the summer.
Fans of the musical will feel the loss of one of the show’s best numbers “Momma I’m a Big Girl Now,” in favor of more screen time for headlining stars like Pfeiffer, Travolta and Christopher Walken. Fortunately, Pfeiffer’s scene-stealing performance takes Velma to an entirely different level, recalling her Grease 2 “Cool-Rider” days (yes, I mean that in a good way.) Walken, who seems to have made his later career out of campy roles, shines as Tracy’s goofball father and his big number alongside Travolta is sure to garner a few chuckles. But when it comes to Travolta’s Edna Turnblad, you’ll wish some scenes had hit the cutting room floor. In his defense, Travolta had the toughest job, having to portray a woman despite having one of the most recognizable male faces in Hollywood. But even with pounds of makeup, he was still Danny Zuko in a fat suit to me. To make matters worse, Travolta uses a strange voice that’s supposed to sound like a Baltimore accent but winds up sounding more like Dr. Evil.
Fortunately, Travolta is overshadowed by the younger stars, who all play age-appropriate roles (unlike Rent where thirty-year olds were playing nineteen.) Nikki Blonsky might not get to do as much sloppy making out or dancing as Ricki Lake did, but her booming voice and endearing expressions make her immediately loveable. Amanda Bynes, probably the largest draw for the younger market, will surprise audiences with her pipes, though she never quite gets nerdy enough for my tastes. Meanwhile, James Marsden and Queen Latifah are perfect in their supporting roles and offer some of the most adult humor of the flick. Look out for some fun cameos throughout: Jerry Stiller (Tracy’s father in the original film) now runs Hefty’s Hideaway and Ricki Lake returns as a talent agent scouting the teens. John Waters also makes a surprise visit in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role.
Overall, it takes a whole lot more effort to hate Hairspray than it does to just sit back and enjoy it. Even if minor moments annoy you (Travolta’s cracking singing voice), you’re still going to clap at the end of the each number. You won’t be able to stop yourself – the loud music demands it! The bottom line is “you can't stop the beat,” so why try?