Can a movie musical be too perky? If so, then Hairspray might fit the bill. This movie-turned-musical-turned-movie-musical tells the story of Tracy Turnblad, a full-figured gal with a big heart and tons of perky attitude — and she sings and dances. When Tracy wins the chance to make her dream come true by becoming a regular on the local teen dance show, she spreads her positive attitude to almost everyone around. The only characters not impressed by her joie de vivre are Amber Von Tussle (local teen bit–I mean– princess) and her station manager mother, Velma (played by Michelle Pfeiffer), who want to keep the racially-segregated status quo and use it to further their own agendas. Tracy is played by newcomer Nikki Blonsky so perfectly that there seems to be no acting involved. Tracy’s completely prejudice-free perspective gets her involved with the black kids in her school and leads to her stir up a march when the TV show decides to eliminate “Negro Day”. She even encourages her best friend Penny (played by the always-fun Amanda Bynes) and her house-bound mother (played by John Travolta) to be true to themselves despite what others may think. The entire tone of Hairspray is fun and positive and it all seems to be beaming out of the character of Tracy.
Being a musical (and an upbeat rather than tragic one), the tone is also kind of light-weight. Despite the fact that it gets into some serious social issues, those moments don’t really have much gravitas. No one is likely to give up their prejudices because of this movie. However, the spirit of tolerance and diversity is very much celebrated. Though most of the characters don’t have a lot of depth (and they don’t have much time to grow, either), the one notable exception is Edna Turnblad (Tracy’s mom). At the start she is stuck at home, deathly afraid of being seen in public looking the way she does (as a zaftig hausfrau). But buoyed by her daughter’s energy and fearlessness, she leaves the house and gets a makeover and starts to regain her own spirit and courage. Despite some rather creepy makeup to make big-guy John Travolta look like even-bigger-gal Edna Turnblad, his performance really won me over and I was amazed at a scene late in the film when Edna does some pretty funky dancing in front of the TV cameras. Somewhere behind the latex and the decades, the boogie-man from Grease and Saturday Night Fever shone through.
I am not very familiar with the stage musical, so I didn’t know which songs were the breakouts, but most of them seemed rather run-of-the-mill. The ones that I enjoyed were “Good Morning, Baltimore” which opened the movie with Tracy walking and singing her way across town, and (what I would guess is generally the crowd-favourite) the finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” where all the characters get to sing and dance during a free-for-all on the Corny Collins show. Though it was definitely before my time, I think the movie also captured the fun style of the 60s dance shows. I could really see how they were the precursors to today’s star-making shows like American Idol. There’s not really any need for me to describe any more of the plot because its perky positivity makes it pretty predictable. Everything ends up for the best and everyone sings and dances. If you’re looking for some fun songs, a good message, and some happy people, Hairspray‘s got it all. (4 out of 5)
What if I made Hairspray?
The cast was all-star. Besides Pfeiffer, there was also Queen Latifah (as local musical diva Motormouth Maybelle), Christopher Walken (as joke-shop owning dad, Wilbur Turnblad), Allison Janney (as Penny’s uptight mom Prudy), James Marsden (as TV host Corny Collins) and teen hearthrob Zac Efron (as teen hearthrob Link Larkin). However, I think that Amanda Bynes was kind of wasted, playing Penny as a generally stiff, hesitant character. Yes, people find her lovable and daffy, but I would have cast her as Amber Von Tussle, letting her play the villainess for a change. I think it would have made Amber a much more interesting character and have given Bynes a lot more to do. Also, I definitely would have worked on John Travolta’s makeup a bit more. He looked like one of the Wayans brothers in White Chicks. It was very distracting and it took a long time into the movie before I could almost see past the fact that it was John Travolta pretending to be a woman. Finally, I would have found a way to ease into the seriousness of the protest march scene led by Motormouth Maybelle. Granted, it was probably done similarly on stage, but it just seemed to come out of nowhere and really didn’t fit with the rest of the movie.