Thursday, September 3, 2009

Hairspray (2007)

"Hairspray" (Adam Shankman, 2007) I'm not big on musicals. Rarely are they better than their source material and the songs, more often than not, are filler with "Moon/June" lyrics that fail to impress. My idea of clever musicals are "Guys and Dolls" and "The Music Man" that carry their music fantasies with a little bit of arrogant panache, daring you to not take it as seriously as regular dialog. My expectations of musicals are pretty low (which is good, I think, as it gves them more of a chance), and my expectations of "Hairspray"—despite rave reviews of the stage version that debuted *huzzah* in Seattle—were quite low. You just knew that a musical of "Hairspray" wouldn't be as edgy as the John Waters original. It was going to have to be neutered to be made "safe."

Plus, it has
John Travolta in it. I can't remember a John Travolta* movie where I was impressed with him. I was probably going in with the wrong attitude.

Because I enjoyed the Hell out of it. Word is that the movie version is a bit more stream-lined and a lot less camp than its stage-version. That may have helped, because "Hairspray" (the musical; the movie) is joyously anarchic, popping baloons gleefully as it goes—maybe laying it on a bit thick, as it goes—but as an expression of the freeing power of rock n' roll, few movies can top it. Especially the serious ones.

The year: 1962, pre-Kennedy assassination (it would have to be) in segregated Baltimore. For Tracy Turnblad (
Nikki Blonsky—this girl needs to work more), life is surviving school in time to get home to watch "The Corny Collins Show" (with James Marsden, going full-wattage cheese), a dance party television show, featuring her dancing dreamboat Link Larkin (Zac Efron, not quite legitimizing the hysteria over him). Her dreams come true when one of the teen-dancers takes a leave of absence ("Nine months," she doesn't need to explain) giving Tracy and her blond twig girlfriend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) a chance to audition. She has many obstacles: station owner Velma von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer, whom my wife described as "voluptuously hideous"—yes, indeed**), and her parents, Wilbur and Edna Turnblad (Christopher Walken and John Travolta).

Now, here I must stop.
Christopher Walken rarely fails to please, but it's a too-rare treat to see him sing-and-dance, which he obviously loves. And Travolta, in drag and dressed in a fat suit with a raspy ovah-the-"twop" Maryland accent?

He's great. Except for his accent slipping during the songs, he's damned near pitch-perfect, doing dance moves weighed down in prosthetics (and in high-heels no less), and providing a sympathetic life-force to the proceedings. Everybody's terrific in it, including old guys Paul Dooley and Jerry Stiller (who played Tracy's dad in Waters' original). Then there's Queen Latifah, who plays the "fill-in" host on Corny Collins' once-a-month "Negro Day"—the black dancers cordoned off from the white dancers by a rope partition—proving once again she is the Rock n' Roll Renaissance woman, who can rise above bad material, and soars with the good.

But it'd all be naught if not for the songs (
well-staged with choreography-friendly directing by Shankman that recalls past movie musicals) by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman. Shaiman's ear for 60's rock styles is flawless and the words by Wittman and Shaiman are clever and sassy and occasionally downright rude.

Original "Hairspray" auteur
John Waters even shows up (in an early cameo as a flasher). Word is that he's working on a screenplay for a sequel. If the product is half as fun as this singing step-child of his work, it will be a must-see.

* Since writing this, I remember I thought he did an extraordinary job of carrying Nicolas Cage's tic's in "Face/Off."

** Pfeiffer has a torchy song—"Miss Baltimore Crabs"—that she vamps though in such high-style that it catches one off-guard...until one remembers "Oh yeah...Susie Diamond."

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