Back in 1988, Baltimore’s self styled “king of trash”, John Waters, made what was to become his sweetest, most mainstream and best loved movie, Hairspray. Jump forward over a decade and Hairspray makes its debut on Broadway, with a few of the rougher edges removed and a whole lot of songs added. And now, as is the norm it would seem, the musical has become a movie again and in many ways a lot more successfully than some recent efforts. Lets face it, Chicago was way too stage bound for its own good, and Dreamgirls was like having three girls shout “look at me!” to you for two hours. You get the feeling that Hairspray is just happy to be here, riding along on a tidal wave of good feelings and sweeping you along for the ride, whether you want to go or not.
The story stays the same as it was all those years ago. Young Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky) is a large proportioned girl with dreams of appearing on the most popular Baltimore TV programme, the Corny Collins Show, but this is America in the 60’s and prejudice is rife, both racial and otherwise. Against her mothers wishes she auditions and, via a series of entertaining contrivances, she manages to land the job.
The film thinks it has serious things to say about racism, segregation and the plight of the outsider, but this IS a musical and any message it has is so diluted as to be non existent. In fact the scene near the end, of a black march to the TV station, sits uneasily with what has gone before, and indeed the film maybe in danger of its own kind of racism in the detention room scenes where it would appear that only black teenagers were ever given detention, and while there they spend the whole time practising their dance moves. Also, the film makers obviously want us to think that they are being very daring by using the word “negro” as often as they do, but when it comes to Tracy and her mother the writers lose their nerve and can’t even bring themselves to use the “f” word. Tracey is always plump, well proportioned or cuddly but never, heaven forbid, FAT!
Take away the efforts to preach and send a message, however and you have got a musical that will set your toes tapping and send you out of the cinema with a smile on your face and a song on your lips. Nikki Blonsky is a revelation in her first film role, Christopher Walken, as her father, is solid but not exceptional (maybe it’s just me, but he seems to be becoming a parody of himself) James Marsden and Zac Efron, as the shows host and heartthrob star respectively, excel and seem to be having a ball, but clearly enjoying herself the most is Michelle Pfeiffer as the evil Velma Von Tussle, producer of the show and someone for whom the very thought of “negro’s” on her stage makes her blood boil. She chews the scenery like a pro and steals every scene she’s in, almost making you want to root for the bad guy. John Waters pops up in a hilarious cameo and even Rikki Lake (the original Tracy) shows her face briefly.
Of course the big selling poing of the film has been John Travolta as Tracy’s mum, Edna Turnblad, in a dress and a fat suit. And this is almost the films undoing. Admittedly our first glimpse of him raises a smile, but subsequently he just seems to be trying too hard and his accent veers all over the place, resulting in him sounding like a bad drag act. All is forgiven however during his two show stopping song and dance routines at the end of the film, where he shows he can still dance up a storm even when covered from head to toe in latex.
Obviously musicals divide people probably more than any other genre, with some loving the thought of people bursting into song at every opportunity while others thinking them the work of the devil. If you are in the latter camp this film will not change your mind, but if you are in the former prepare to shake your stuff.