In a summer when it seems that no one in Hollywood has an original thought and are simply banking on sequels to fatten their bank accounts, along comes Hairspray. It’s not really a sequel, nor is it a remake, but in a way it’s both. The new movie starring John Travolta (in drag), Christopher Walken, Queen Latifah and newcomer Nikki Blonsky is based on the Broadway smash hit musical, which in turn was based on a 1988 movie by John Waters. Drawing on the best bits from both its inspirations the new Hairspray is completely original and a happy antidote to the dire sequelitis that has infected the multi-plexes this season.
Shot in Toronto, but set in Baltimore in 1962 Hairspray is the story of the elaborately coiffed Tracy Turnblad. Tracey’s a dance-crazy teen who rushes home from school every day to watch The Corny Collins Show, a cut-rate riff on American Bandstand, which features a cast of milky white teens who strut their bland perfectly groomed selves for the television cameras. At the helm of the show is Velma Von Tussel (Michelle Pfeiffer) the vicious mother of Amber (Brittany Snow), who will do anything to ensure that her daughter is front and center.
When Tracy is sent to detention (for “inappropriate hair height”) she learns a new kind of dancing from the African-American kids who pass their after school penalty time dancing to rockin’ R&B. There Tracy learns a hip-shaking dance that gets her a berth on the Collins show, despite the fact that the evil Von Tussels think she is too heavy and not pretty enough to be on television. She becomes a local sensation, much to the delight of her mom Edna (John Travolta) and father Wilbur (Christopher Walken), whose Har Har Hut is the Taj Mahal of joke shops, and even gets a gig endorsing clothes from Mr. Pink’s Hefty Hideaway.
When Von Tussel cancels “Negro Day,” the once-a-month celebration of black music hosted by record shop owner Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) Tracy hatches a plan to stage a protest in front of the television station. The movie takes on a more earnest tone as Tracy and her friends—both black and white—conspire to integrate The Corny Collins Show.
Hairspray is one of the more anticipated Broadway to screen adaptations of recent years, and it delivers. Director Adam Shankman is best known for making blandly formulaic family films like Cheaper by the Dozen and The Pacifier gives the proceedings a shimmering 1960s glow that is quite infectious. It’s colorful, noisy and so eager to please that it’s hard not to get sucked in.
The movie’s exuberant tone is maintained by the youthful cast, and while the older cast members try and keep up, they don’t always keep pace.
Tarvolta, in drag as Tracy’s overweight mother raises a laugh or two early on, but as the movie progresses the drag act becomes more an exercise in stunt casting—“Look John Travolta’s wearing a Muumuu!”—rather than a truly great comedic performance. Walken is reliably weird as the joke shop owning father, but the performance is strange rather than funny, which seems a bit at odds with the rest of the film. Pfeiffer, on the come back trail after a few years off, looks amazing and is suitably villainous as the racist, conniving station manager, but the part could have used a little less camp and a few more laughs. Queen Latifah brings her considerable charm to the movie but should have brought a bit more fire to the role of the rebel rousing Motormouth Maybelle.
Nikki Blonsky, however, the former ice cream scooper plucked from obscurity to play the lead role shines. Her beaming smile, strong singing voice and enthusiasm go a long way toward building good will for her character. She holds her own in her scenes opposite more experienced actors like Travolta and Walken. In a cast top heavy with vets, Blonsky and the young cast members—Amanda Bynes, Zac Efron and Elijah Kelley—really are the stars of this show.
Hairspray starts off strong, wanes a bit early and soft peddles the social commentary of the John Waters movie, but makes up for its shortcomings through sheer strength of the cast’s high-spirited will to entertain.