I love love love the Broadway soundtrack to Hairspray. So much, in fact, that I went without dinner and still bounced a check in order to own it, it’s so infectious and cheerful and fun. Marc Shaiman’s music (South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut, Down With Love) can capture a feeling in a bottle like no one else in the business today. Even with Harvey Fierstein croaking out the notes for Edna Turnblad, it’s a delish disc. When they announced the casting of John Travolta in the role (originated in the 1988 movie by legendary drag queen Divine), I was more than a little nervous. Mr. Travolta has rarely been a pleaser for me. The rest of the cast (and the score) drew me in and tickled me pink, but John had me clutching my companion in ecstasy. As in the original film, Edna being played by a man is done with nary a wink. Travolta even moves like a woman, a common lack in other comedy drag. Pairing an established hoofer/crooner like Travolta with an equally skilled one like Christopher Walken (The Deer Hunter, Pulp Fiction) is priceless.
But I digress. Hairspray is really the story of Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky) and the segregated dance world of 1962 Baltimore. Blonsky is plump, sweet, firey, charming, funny, and has some serious moves. Her opening solo is simultaneously a warm sincere monologue and a huge production number starring one person. Blonsky and director Adam Shankman (ignore his filmography) successfully give us what appears to be so hard to convey on the big screen: that full-to-bursting feeling of joy that inspires musicals but rarely inhabits them. At no point did anyone breaking into song in a scene feel telegraphed or artificial, it was just right in that world. Shankman has broken the code and made the movie musical accessible to detractors again. (Full disclosure: I am so not one of those detractors!) The original film was only one chromosome way from being a musical anyway, but unlike say, The Producers, Hairspray’s songs demand to be sung and there’s no extraneous or gratuitous blather. Also unlike the Producers musical movie, Hairspray doesn’t feel weird and flat.
Plenty of numbers are shot in small spaces (in a house, a bus, a hallway) and feel intimate, but not cramped. The difference is the minimalist shots – just straight on with few cuts, giving us the ramping energy and build up without annoying us with unnecessary close-ups or inserts. The scenes explode with energy and emotion and the yummiest costumes since I don’t know when. Rita Ryack is my new movie costume hero. I love that era and she makes it sing, scene after scene. The movie never feels overblown or exaggerated, just a view of a world of high energy people doing what they do naturally, like your theatre friends at a bar. Even the extras have great little things to do. Watch for at least 3 very special low-key cameos. Hairspray feels like a bunch of friends putting on a great show, not a craven bid to cash in on a stage sensation.
James Marsden plays Corny Collins, a cartoonish TV host with an eponymous teen dance show, the focus of Tracy’s life. Now, I have never previously warmed up to him as an actor (see: X-Men, Superman Returns) but I could not take my eyes off him any time he was onscreen – he’s got the vibe, the moves, the pipes, and he is hilarious. Go James! I’m sorry I accused you of sleeping your way into the role of Cyclops.
Zac Efron has a big following from his stint with High School Musical, but acquits himself as more than just a real life Tiger Beat sensation in 2007 by playing a Teen Beat sensation of 1962 with unwinking, sweet sincerity. OK, he winks, but he’s not winking at the camera.
All the casting is perfect, melding the actors’ personae and filmography and make it look as if they were just being driven to this film over the course of their careers. Elijah Kelly (Seaweed), Brittany Snow (Amber) and Taylor Parks (Lil’ Inez) should burst into the public consciousness with their performances along with their famous co-stars.
As the cherry on the delicious, fattening sundae, my dancer friend confirmed that the dancing is indeed quite awesome. Shankman has a lot of choreography in his background, but this takes the cake. Hairspray is a frothy musical about the deep topics of hate due to race, weight, or background, and of course it centers it on following your dream and your heart. It couldn’t be more positive if it had an extra proton, and it’s hilarious and beautifully done. Please, see it on the big screen.
MPAA Rating PG
Release date 7/20/07
Time in minutes 107
Director Adam Shankman
Studio New Line Cinema