“Hairspray:” Happy feet and a non-stop beat
“Welcome to the 60’s” indeed. Back then, movie musicals ruled. With nine Best Picture nominees including four winners, it was the decade when big screen song-and-dance productions hit their apex. There’s been a resurrection of sorts with films like “Chicago” and “Moulin Rouge” earning critical and box office success. But the heat from their initial spark seemed to have cooled with the lukewarm reception of “The Producers,” “Rent,” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” (adaptations that their die hard fans will defend, however). Even the popularity of last year’s “Dreamgirls” couldn’t help negate the feeling that it’s exclusion as a Best Picture nominee was more than an oversight-a direct slap in the face.
Along comes “Hairspray”, a new and many would say improved, version of John Waters campy 1998 original film (which made Ricki Lake a star) and, most critically, is based on the successful Broadway incarnation.
Most of the buzz is about John Travolta’s involvement as Edna Turnblad the plus-plus size middle-aged Mother of sparkplug teen Tracy (newcomer Nikki Blonsky). It’s a role typically played by a man (Divine, Harvey Fierstein, Michael McKean etc…) but not one of Travolta’s celebrity and stature. The result? In a word, creepy. But that could be said of some of the other known performers Christopher Walken (who Travolta recommended) who as Edna’s husband and gag store owner is creepy old and Michelle Pfeiffer as Velma the TV producer and the movie’s primary villain is creepy skinny. After the initial shocks, the seasoned actors (along with Queen Latifah who continues to shine) nail their individual parts and give the film a strong backbone upon which to build.
But it’s the film’s youngsters who steal the show, particularly roly-poly Blonsky who infuses Tracy with so much spunk and an infectious smile as big as Baltimore (where circa 1962, the story takes place). Teen idol Zac Efron proves his “High School Musical” success was no fluke playing Elvis-like heartthrob Link, James Marsden far from his superhero dablings (“X-men”) lights up as the local TV show host, and even Amanda Bynes (“She’s the Man”) is more than tolerable as Tracy’s best friend Penny. Continuing the casting coups is the introduction of the supercharged Elijah Kelly one of the neighborhood kids who gets to strut his stuff once a month on the shows’ “Negro Day.”
The film’s rose-colored retrospective is nicely contrasted with an admittedly lightweight but fairly effective treatment of the racial inequalities of the time. There is also a clich?d and unnecessary anti-Catholicism element.
The main point of a movie musical however, is the song and dance. And that’s where the relentlessly happy “Hairspray” packs a knockout punch. Director/Choreographer Adam Shankman (“A Walk to Remember”) keeps the focus where it should be, and “Hairspray” has rarely a moment where one of its plentiful catchy pop tunes or snappy dance productions isn’t involved. Though it may be more like this generation’s “Little Shop of Horrors,” than “Grease,” “Hairspray” is nonetheless a fine tribute to the movie musicals of old but with a contemporary energy that sizzles in every frame.
Rated PG (Suggestive dialogue)