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Film: Review: Hairspray

Move-turned-Broadway show-turned movie again is a summer pleasure

By Steven Rosen · July 18th, 2007 · Movies
  John Travolta and Nikki Blonsky star in Hairspray, an adaptation of the Broadway musical that was in turn based on John Waters' 1988 film.
New Line Cinema

John Travolta and Nikki Blonsky star in Hairspray, an adaptation of the Broadway musical that was in turn based on John Waters' 1988 film.

Good spirits, great songs and casting smarts -- mixing relaxed Hollywood veterans who love the material with young newcomers full of energy -- make Hairspray a summer movie pleasure. After watching recent Hollywood adaptations of Broadway musicals stumble all over themselves trying to find a consistent, assured tone in bloated productions like Dreamgirls, it's cause for celebration to see one get it right. And be nimble on its feet about it.

Hairspray started life as a 1988 movie by the devilishly subversive and witty filmmaker John Waters. Recalling the controversy over black kids being allowed on a television teen dance show in his hometown of Baltimore in the early 1960s, he fashioned a high-energy, Rock & Roll racial-integration fantasy in which the "outsiders" -- the black kids, a zaftig white teen and her even heavier-set mom -- formed their own nascent counterculture to change society as they knew it. That meant they break down the walls of segregation confining the black kids to an occasional "Negro Day" on The Corny Collins Show.

The great cast included Ricki Lake as the white teen, Traci Turnblad and Divine, the dearly departed professional female impersonator who was Waters' muse, as her mom Edna. With period oldies and dancing galore, Waters just stopped short of making an original Hollywood musical.

It seemed perfect for Broadway, if it could find a score true to the film's zestfully comic but not condescending music-loving spirit. Marc Shaiman, who wrote the songs for the South Park movie, accepted the challenge and got the Lesley-Gore-meets-The-Contours vibe just right.

The result was one of Broadway's biggest recent hits. Marissa Jaret Winokur made a lively Traci, and croaking-frog-voiced Harvey Fierstein was unforgettable as her mom.

This movie is an adaptation of that, and it's very satisfactory as a goofier-than-Grease light-musical entertainment, with many of Waters' jibes at societal hypocrisies intact. It's sweetly directed by Adam Shankman (Bringing Down the House), smartly filmed and choreographed to show the feet as well as the exuberant faces. And it features the most vibrantly colorful sets and costumes -- on this side of the Atlantic -- since Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

It also has a keeper in its starring role of Traci -- Long Island teen Nikki Blonsky. Tiny and unself-consciously packing a little weight on her frame, as well as some big hair on her head, this newcomer has a gleeful smile and a teasing attitude and can shimmy, bounce and shake a tail feather with high-energy ease.

The film is a workout for her, with song-and-dance numbers coming rapid-fire from the start ("Good Morning, Baltimore," "I Can Hear the Bells"), and she never shows fatigue. And relative newcomer Elijah Kelley as Seaweed, the black student who is a great dancer and becomes Traci's soul mate, makes for a dynamic partner.

Hairspray's biggest risk, John Travolta in the Divine/Fierstein role, works out surprisingly well. He hasn't Fierstein's dramatic rumble of a speaking voice, and he buries his words when speaking as if he's Chevy Chase murmuring "telegram" on Saturday Night Live's old "land shark" skit, but even under all the makeup and latex, he still has his beloved baby face. His singing voice has always been (unintentionally) comic, which works for this film.

But, as everyone who remembers Saturday Night Fever, Grease and Pulp Fiction knows, he can dance. He gets some fine chances, especially in the film's tribute to 1950s-era romantic musicals when he and Christopher Walken (as husband Wilbur Turnblad, owner of an old-fashioned joke shop) do a little soft-shoe and sweet talk in "(You're) Timeless to Me." I only wish Walken, a phenomenal dancer in Pennies From Heaven and the FatBoy Slim video, also got a frenetic show-stopping number.

Michelle Pfeiffer is outstanding as the Cruella De Vil-like Velma Von Tussle, the slightly fading beauty-queen bombshell of a segregationist station manager, and gets several choice musical numbers ("The Legend of Miss Baltimore Crabs") as well as some beautiful dresses. Cast-wise, the hits keep coming well into supporting roles -- Queen Latifah as Motormouth Maybelle, the Negro Day host; Brittany Snow as Amber Von Tussle; Zac Efron as Link Larkin; Amanda Bynes as Penny Pingleton and more.

Hairspray is so good, that I'm ready for the Broadway adaptation of Cry-Baby. Grade: B+



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