For those who haven’t seen the original, the movie follows Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky), a teenage girl in
in 1962. She is a massive fan of the local American Bandstand-like Corny Collins Show on TV. Corny Collins (James Marsden) has a number of local teens that dance on his show to the latest hit songs. Among them are teenage heartthrob Link Larkin (played by teenage heartthrob Zac Efron) and Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow), his girlfriend. Baltimore dreams of being on the show someday, but she’s not the type that the show’s producer Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) would ever put on the air with her daughter Amber. You see, Tracy is quite a heavy girl. Tracy
At school one day
gets detention. When she gets there she finds some black students dancing to a song she’s never heard. She asks them about their dancing style and learns to copy it. One of the students, Seaweed (Elijah Kelley), does appear on The Corny Collins Show once a month – on “Negro Day”. His mother, Miss Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah), co-hosts Negro Day with Corny Collins. When Tracy ’s friend Penny meets Seaweed, both of them fall for the other. Tracy
Also in detention is Link Larkin and when he sees
dance he champions her to become a new dancer on the show. There is an opening because one of the female dancers is going to have to take a leave of absence “for about nine months.” Velma Von Tussle is completely against it, but Corny Collins puts his foot down. As he asks her, who else is she going to get to host “The Corny Collins Show” other than Corny Collins? Tracy
This movie is in this “Playing the Other Gender” category because of John Travolta’s performance as Edna Turnblad. My understanding is that Divine’s performance as the mother in the original film was more a broad wink that the character was a man in drag, but in this film Travolta is playing a real mother. Edna is genuinely worried about her daughter’s well-being and happiness. Because she is a large woman, she’s unsure if her husband still loves her or wants Velma instead. Edna is a middle aged woman who’s a little scared of all these changes going on socially, musically, and politically.
Travolta does a great job in this role. Yes, he is under a lot of facial prosthetics, as well as a 40 pound fat suit under his clothes, but he really gets the right body language. And when his character dances he shows he’s still got it, even when he is dancing like a woman. A highlight is a sequence where Edna and Wilbur (Travolta and Walken) have a dance number right out of one of the MGM musicals they would have seen in the 1940s when they were first falling in love.
The songs in the film are almost all quite good. I particularly liked Big, Blond, and Beautiful sung by both Queen Latifah and John Travolta at different points. Most of the actors/actresses can also sing, so they don’t embarrass themselves. It was good to see Pfeiffer get to sing for the first time since way back in 1989 in The Fabulous Baker Boys. You should carefully listen to the words to the songs, too. Most of them are pretty subversive for the time period. For instance Link Larkin sings a song titled Ladies Choice (which has a great Bo Diddley beat in it), and if you listen to the words he is basically singing about being a gigolo. At one point
is singing about wanting Link to be her boyfriend and if she does get him “I won’t go ‘all the way’, but I’ll go pretty far.” Tracy
Speaking of subversive, anyone who has seen a John Waters film knows that he revels in being subversive. Some of his fans were worried that this musical version would water down or sanitize all the twisted humor. (The guy I mentioned at the top was one of them.) These people need not have worried. There are tons of little moments in the film where the attitude of people in 1962 to racial issues, sexual issues, and health issues are lampooned. The biggest example, of course, is the whole “Negro Day” bit. Blacks and whites were supposed to remain separate and they even had a physical rope separating the black kids from the white kids on the TV show. And Penny and Seaweed’s romance was literally illegal in
in 1962, not to mention what Penny’s mother would do if she found out. Speaking of Penny’s mother and subversive humor, at one point she is shown reading the Bible to comfort herself, but the passage she is reading is the one about Baltimore Lot’s daughters getting him drunk so he will impregnate them.
Other little moments include a scene where a bunch of pregnant mothers are sitting in a bar, drinking their alcohol and smoking their cigarettes. (The Surgeon General’s warning about cigarettes being harmful was two years away.) John Waters supported this film and even had a cameo as a flasher in another little bit of subversive humor. Original 1998 Hairspray lead
also cameos as a judge, and the actor who played her father in that film, Jerry Stiller, cameos as a local businessman. Ricki Lake
Anyone who thinks that musicals are supposed to be logical will be upset by this movie. It’s a traditional musical with singing and dancing. For everyone else, this is a fun and entertaining movie, and I highly recommend it.
Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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