WFTB Score: 15/20
The plot: Well-fed Baltimore teenager Tracy Turnblad devotes her life to the Corny Collins show, so when the chance to become a regular dancer arrives she uses every move at her disposal to bag a spot and get closer to the show’s young heart-throb, Link. Tracy’s parents are not the only ones to fret over her ambition and choice of new friends from across the 1960s race divide; the show’s uptight stage manager, grooming her daughter for another Teenage Miss Hairspray title, is determined that both Tracy and the march towards integrated dancing will be stopped, by any means necessary.
Following in the confusing footsteps of Mel Brooks’ The Producers, Disney’s Hairspray is the film of the musical of John Waters’ 1988 film of the same name. Unlike The Producers, I have seen neither the musical nor the original film of Hairspray, so the following review will contain a few presumptions, however taken strictly on its own terms I am pleased to say that Adam Shankman’s film not only works, but is a work of rare and unalloyed joy.
It’s 1962 in Baltimore and Tracy Turnblad’s life doesn’t appear to be very promising; she’s overweight, under-performing in school, and living above her dad Wilbur’s humble joke shop with claustrophobic mum Edna. She is always happy, however, because of the Corny Collins show which always plays the latest tunes and shows off the latest dances, and also features good-looking young star Link Larkin.
Link goes to Tracy’s school but his time is taken up with pushy blonde Amber von Tussle, the daughter of station manager Velma, so he doesn’t know she exists; at least until a spot comes up for a new dancer on the show. Tracy tries out but Velma humiliates her and worse, the audition lands her in detention; luckily, detention is a pretty funky happening where most of the school’s black students hang out and dance, including attractive young ‘Seaweed’ who draws the eye of Tracy’s friend Penny. The black population of Baltimore are only seen on Corny Collins’ ‘Negro days’ but when Tracy is spotted strutting her new-found stuff, she starts to break down the barriers between the races and sets in motion a sequence of events that could either end in integration or the demise of black people dancing on the show entirely; caught in the middle, Link has to choose between Tracy, her beliefs and her friends, and the continuation of his career on the show.
To address the negative aspects of the film first, those looking for a commentary on race relations in early 1960s America are likely to be disappointed, Adam Shankman presenting a simplistic tale of good guys and bad guys. Tracy is on the side of the angels as her size also makes her ‘different’; she and her detention friends are lined up against villainous, cheating Velma and her practically cloned daughter Amber: even if they are not quite white supremacists, they are pantomimic caricatures afforded no redeeming features. During the protest march too, the police chief is ridiculed for receiving ‘brutal’ injuries from a light tap to the head from Tracy’s banner, suggesting that all race protests were entirely dignified and non-violent affairs. Still, I would suggest that Hairspray is redressing a balance that has been skewed the other way for hundreds of years, and in a Disney musical subtlety is bound to get glossed over, along with (I presume) any coarser edges from Waters’ original.
As for the music, the first thing to note is that there’s a lot of it, perhaps too much – but again, too many songs is surely preferable to too much talking. The score, written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, is pleasant and energetic, but fairly generic: a piece of blurb on the DVD cover invites us to ‘Think Grease…’ and on several occasions the songs, and a certain amount of choreography, get uncomfortably close (The Nicest Kids in Town bears striking similarities to Greased Lightnin’, for example). Nonetheless, the music captures the ebullient nature of the storyline, and the cast respond with bright performances: Nikki Blonsky (Tracy) is a delight in her first film, singing beautifully and her sunny disposition never falling into cheesiness; Zac Efron is his usual charming self as Link, and special mention should be made of Elijah Kelley, who is superb as dancing sensation Seaweed, under the gaze of his mother ‘Motormouth‘ Maybelle (Queen Latifah).
John Travolta and Christopher Walken have great fun as Tracy’s parents, Walken doing his usual thing and Travolta dragging up a treat. Although his speaking accent is a touch Dr Evil, he looks like he enjoys being back in a musical, and surprisingly the same is true of Michelle Pfeiffer (Velma), who sings quite nicely even if her dancing hasn’t improved much since Grease 2. As Velma’s virtual clone, Brittany Snow plays the role of Amber with convincing petulance, and Amanda Bynes (as Penny) and James Marsden (as Corny Collins) are attractive in their supporting roles too. Also – unlike the 2005 version of The Producers – Hairspray easily escapes its stage boundaries, moving around Baltimore with gay abandon.
For all the gripes you could have with the film, you would have to be in an especially pessimistic frame of mind not to be won over by Hairspray by the time it gets to its joyful conclusion and the show’s barnstorming finale You Can’t Stop the Beat, a song so infectious it almost demands you stand up and sing along. I should also mention the incidental pleasures the film offers in cameo-spotting by members of the original film’s cast (which I shall doubtless enjoy even more when I get to see it!). Hairspray is a rare thing indeed, a film that plays down all of its potentially negative or ugly moments (even the Turnblad’s brief spat, after Velma tries to seduce Wilbur, is quickly resolved) in favour of an uplifting, if simplistic, message of progress and inclusion. Whether it’s a message you believe in or not, Hairspray makes a convincing case for it: for the young adults that make up the target audience of the movie, but also for anyone who can still muster the energy to shake it on a Saturday night.