New Line Cinema
Directed by Adam Shankman
With Nikki Blonsky, John Travolta, Queen Latifah, and James Marsden
Let me first say that I haven’t seen the eponymous 1988 John Waters film on which Hairspray is based. Or, perhaps I should say that I haven’t seen the Broadway adaptation of the Waters movie that debuted in 2002 and is still going strong in New York and with several touring versions. But my state of blank ignorance will be shared by 99 percent of the multiplex audience who catches this 2007 film, few of whom saw either of its predecessors.
So perhaps it’s not such a bad thing that we’re seeing a spate of movie-to-Broadway-to-movie adaptations … if we can call three in five years a “spate.” (There was the movie musical Little Shop of Horrors two decades ago, but that was multiple trend cycles in the past.) Because so far, they’ve been really quite good. Chicago was 2002’s Oscar Best Picture, and not undeservedly so. The Producers was a delightful lark, and the staginess of its presentation near to re-created the experience of seeing it on the Great White Way. And now there’s Hairspray, which couldn’t be more charming and joyous, more get-up-and-dance, more toe-tapping, more simply agreeable. If bringing Broadway to the masses works this great, well, why the hell not? This probably means we’re in for a lightning-fast double turnaround for Legally Blonde: The Musical next year, as that’s the tourist trap of the moment currently infuriating New York theatregoers lamenting the disappearance of serious plays, even as it garners decent reviews. But we’ll deal with that as it comes.
On stage, these shows are tourists traps, no matter how enjoyable and singalong-snappy they may be. They’re designed to be theme-park amusements for patrons who want a taste of the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd, but wouldn’t know from Pinter if he paused to bite them on the ass. And their bright, bubbly, please-don’t-force-me-to-think-too-much attitude actually works much better on the big screen. Oh, sure, there’s satire galore in Hairspray, about the wages of conformity and the price of small-mindedness, but it’s couched in bouffant cotton candy and spritely songs. And it’s all perfectly wonderful — I don’t want to sound as if I’m damning the movie with faint praise. It’s as good as entertainment for the masses gets … and it’s actually in a medium better suited for it than the Broadway stage.
It’s a nice indication of how far we’ve come as a culture that there is no hedging in the send-up here of the idiocy of racial segregation, the crux around which Baltimorean teen Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky, who’s lovely) experiences her coming of age in 1962. She’s hooked on a local TV dance program, The Corny Collins Show, but her dreams of dancing on the program are dashed by the fact that she’s a short, round little thing, and no matter how cute or vivacious she is, she is never going to be one of the tall, willowy creatures the show favors for its girl dancers. Until, shockingly, her dream comes true when herself bustin’ a groove catches the eye of Corny (the slyly superb James Marsden) and she lands a spot on his dance floor. But she can’t leave well enough alone: Now she wants to integrate Corny’s show, get all the black kids out of their ghetto of the show’s once-a-month “Negro Day” and in front of the cameras every day.
Tracy isn’t so much a rabblerouser as she is merely naive enough to not really grasp the implications of what she starts by wanting to dance with her black friends, who are simply just fantastic dancers. The touches of ’60s cluelessness on display — the smoky teachers’ lounge at Tracy’s high school, the unused seat belts hanging out of a car — add sprigs of bitter irony, but mostly Hairspray wears its tender, sweet heart on its sleeve, singing itself hoarse on chipper tunes about being nice, being in love, and being yourself no matter what anyone else thinks.
Which makes it very easy to love — utterly unchallenging but utterly unobjectionable with it. Even John Travolta in his drag fat suit as Edna, Tracy’s mom, is cuddly and adorable. (Whether his Scientology makes the actor anti-gay — and hence, presumably, anti-drag — as some detractors have tried to point out, there’s not a whiff of anything insulting or antagonistic in his performance.) If you want the John Waters’ original — which I’m guessing is more redolent of his snide, acid humor — that one still exists, of course. But if you want the fluffy, featherweight, but enchanting Broadway version, here ya go. Enjoy. I sure did.