Eugene Weekly : Movies : 7.26.07


Think Big
A new version of the cult film and Broadway musical

HAIRSPRAY: Directed by Adam Shankman. Written by John Waters, Thomas Meehan, Mark O’Donnell and Leslie Dixon. Cinematography, Bojan Bazelli. Music, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Starring John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, James Marsden, Queen Latifah, Brittany Snow, Allison Janney, Jerry Stiller and Nikki Blonsky. New Line Cinema, 2007. PG. 117 minutes.

Amanda Bynes and Nikki Blonsky get their groove on in Hairspray

“Good Morning Baltimore,” the cheery number that opens Hairspray, contains elements not often found in movie musicals, let alone daily life. Atop a garbage truck sits Traci Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky), greeting the day with the enthusiasm of the seriously overmedicated. This is pre-Paxil 1962, mind you, so we’re left to conclude that Traci, who’s built like a linebacker with the voice of a 12-year-old, is just being herself. (Also that when you missed your bus in ’62, you just hopped the closest refuse vehicle.) Before pausing for breath, Traci greets a trio of rats and an eerily familiar flasher — it’s John Waters, director of the original film. But it isn’t until John Travolta shows up in drag that everything falls into place: Hairspray, you realize, is the anti-Grease. It’s campy and inclusive and purposeful. With its twin themes of race and obesity, Hairspray has a lot on its mind, but it doesn’t ever forget to have fun.

You also realize early in Hairspray that this Baltimore is white. It’s going to stay that way if Velma von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) has anything to do with it. Von Tussle is the chilly white witch of Baltimore. As station manager of the TV channel that produces the popular Corny Collins dance program, she’s committed to racial segregation. As a goodwill gesture, the program allows blacks to dance once per month, an event affectionately referred to as Negro Day, during which time the program plays “race music.” In the meantime, where are all the black kids, you ask? It turns out they’re in the detention room at school, where Traci finds herself following another tardy morning. In detention, Traci finds a sort of black American Bandstand, a rich dark center to the vanilla school she’s known. At the insistence of a gorgeous boy named Seaweed Stubbs (Elijah Kelley), Traci learns how to get her dance on.

Everything is set for a very interesting Negro Day on the next Corny Collins show, which uses white rope to racially divide the dance floor. When Traci crosses over, a full-on interracial booty shake ensues — in other words, a regular dance. If Traci’s plumpness didn’t ostracize her before, her progressive beliefs should take care of it. There’s a ray of hope when Link Larkin (Zac Efron), the longtime object of Traci’s affection, crosses the dance floor as well, after which Traci, emboldened, inspires the local blacks to march. Hairspray then becomes, briefly, a serious but alternative history of the civil rights movement, in which a young white girl helps to racially integrate Baltimore. Traci’s mother Edna (a nimble John Travolta in a size 60 dress and lispy accent) is terrified, while her father Wilbur (Christopher Walken) knows he can’t stop the future.

Hairspray is the child of two parents a generation apart: The sensibility belongs to the 1988 film, but the 2002 Broadway production provides the bulk of the music. That’s as it should be: Hairspray the musical swept the 2003 Tony awards, including Best Musical and Best Book. The current film, although toned down from earlier versions — Traci doesn’t end up in jail, for example — is nonetheless ably directed by Adam Shankman, a former dancer and the choreographer for Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “Once More, With Feeling.” Pulling a rare double-duty, Shankman also choreographs Hairpray‘s musical numbers, which aren’t always equal to the songs themselves. Nevertheless, this sweet, intelligent film manages to entertain while making a point: Namely, that a person’s worth begins deep beneath the skin, no matter what size or color that skin might be.