Friday, October 5, 2012

Movie – Hairspray (2007)

The 2007 film Hairspray is not a direct remake of the original 1988 John Waters movie of the same name.  It is actually a film adaptation of the Tony Award winning Broadway musical, which was itself a musical adaptation of the non-musical 1988 movie.  I have not seen the original film, but a friend who was a big fan of it also watched this version of Hairspray and found that he liked it even more than the original.  I feel that Hairspray is a lot of fun and one of the best musicals of the 2000s.

For those who haven’t seen the original, the movie follows Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky), a teenage girl in Baltimore 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.  Tracy 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’s mother Edna (John Travolta) knows this and worries that her little girl will get hurt.  Tracy has enormous amounts of good will and sees everything in the most positive way.  Tracy’s father Wilbur (Christopher Walken) tries to assuage Edna’s fears, to little avail.  It doesn’t help Edna’s nerves that Tracy and her best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) race home from school to watch the show…without the permission of Penny’s very strict mother Prudy Pingleton (Allison Janney).

At school one day Tracy 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.

Also in detention is Link Larkin and when he sees Tracy 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’s appearance on the show inspires some fandom and it even gets her mother Edna to go out into this strange, scary new world of the 1960s.  Edna and Tracy get makeovers and Edna is happy.  Unfortunately, Velma hasn’t run out of tricks.  She tries to create problems between Edna and her husband Wilbur, and she does everything she can to keep her daughter Amber more prevalent on the show, and to keep Tracy away from Amber’s boyfriend Link.

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 Tracy 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.”

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 Baltimore 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 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 Ricki Lake also cameos as a judge, and the actor who played her father in that film, Jerry Stiller, cameos as a local businessman.

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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  1. This was such a fun movie. And although it makes modern audiences cringe -- as you said -- smoking and drinking during pregnancy were considered perfectly kosher then.

    1. For me that was the point - making fun of all the attitudes from back then. I'm glad you liked it.

  2. Never wanted to see this, Chip. I would like to see that routine between Travolta and Walken, though.

    1. If you don't like musicals then yes, it's not for you. If you are ever feeling down, though, pop this movie in and you will probably be feeling better by the end of it.

      I tried to find a still of Walken and Travolta doing their number. All IMDB had was this - - which is at the start before they have gone into their fantasy MGM musical setting and outfits.

    2. I love musicals, but I think the whole idea of Travolta playing a woman turned me off.

    3. Huh. For me that was the primary reason I did see it the first time. I wanted to see if it was going to be horrible or over the top, and ended up being both amused and impressed.