FILM MARATHON: Movie Musicals #6: Hairspray [2007]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG | Runtime: 117 minutes | Release Date: July 20th, 2007 (USA)
Studio: New Line Cinema
Director(s): Adam Shankman
Writer(s): Leslie Dixon / Mark O’Donnell & Thomas Meehan (musical) / John Waters (1988 screenplay)

“Good Morning Baltimore”

Boy does the trailer for Hairspray really forget mentioning exactly what it’s about. Going through its beats, the advertisement talks about its young star Nikki Blonsky and her character Tracy Turnblad’s dreams of overcoming her weight and society’s bigotry to seize her dreams, dance on TV, and get her man. The jokes, the campiness, and the transvestites are present—and what work based on a John Waters film wouldn’t—but everything is displayed out of context. Soundbytes and visuals are shown without explanation and believed to just be a fun time in the sixties with kids dancing and going wild. Everything appears to be directed towards Tracy and her quest to overcome stereotypes when in fact she only exists to serve as a window into the real issue at hand.

This musical is about being blind to what makes us different, but it isn’t about large girls trying to get on television. Hairspray has an agenda and its politics are worn on its sleeve. Civil Rights and integration are tops on the list and half the quippy retorts in the trailer are actually in response to feelings and opinions on the desire for equality. Sure, the game appears to balance on Tracy’s unceremonious dismissal from the Corny Collins Show try-outs by station manager Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her eventual moment of courage to show Corny (James Marsden) what’s she’s made of, but it’s all merely a gateway into the more powerful aspect of segregation in the sixties and the taboo of whites and blacks dancing together on TV. Through Tracy’s yearning for acceptance, she becomes the movement’s spokesperson and champion, forever willing to put her dreams aside for those of her persecuted friends.

And it all starts with the music. Just a normal morning in Baltimore and Tracy’s sunny disposition shines forth, the dismal, rundown nature of the world around her a cloudy illusion unable to break her spirit. Blonsky steals the show right here during the opening number, showing off her curves and unashamed figure, a smile ear to ear unwavering even to the rats foraging for survival on the streets. It’s a new day—a weekday—and although that means slogging through school in a dazed stare at the clock, it also ushers in the glorious gift of Corny Collins and his merry band of young councilmen. Their singing and dancing inspire Tracy to be better than the life afforded her. She doesn’t wish to become a laundress like her mother; she wants to follow her potential and live life like her father has always told her, by reaching for the stars. Her body is a non-subject, her ‘Negro’ dance moves exciting rather than heretical, and the fact she would need to skip school to join the team is an obstacle she was more than willing to barrel through.

There is cattiness and suburban issues ranging from social status disparity and your common petty jealousies—the high-risk stakes of protests and civil disobedience come much later into the film. Tracy is the outside wildcard and an overnight sensation, so you know the former ‘it’ girl Amber (Brittany Snow), the daughter of Ms. Von Tussle and a barely capable dancer, will take umbrage. With the world on a platter, it is she who has the most lose, be it her spot as Hairspray Queen, (oh yeah, the variety show is brought to us by Ultra Clutch Hairspray and the smoke clouds onstage rival the ones in Tracy’s school’s teachers’ lounge), her hopes of finding fame and fortune in the shadow of her mother’s constantly harped upon former Miss Baltimore victory, or her boyfriend Link Larkin (Zac Efron), the heartthrob of their school and whomever has their TV tuned to the show daily. It’s the constant thrust to be what the past viewed as success that keeps Amber down and Tracy’s forward thinking ability to standalone that makes her sexy.

Everyone turns their heads—except the aptly named Prudy Pingleton (Allison Janney)—and is smittenly transfixed by this girl awakening a town. She doesn’t merely become the face of hopeless dreamers or the prized daughter of a joke shop owner (Christopher Walken) and overweight recluse (John Travolta), but also the courage behind a group of neglected soul-searchers, too used to being knocked down to find the strength to fight back. Meeting Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) in detention and finding a haven of African American kids having a good time and escaping the stuffy, Puritanical status quo that has brainwashed everyone around them makes her stand up due to pure compassion and a realization of right conquering wrong, soon assisted by a slew of surprising characters joining the cause. It’s Corny, (Marsden is a hoot with his elastic expressions and exuberance), who wants integration on his show; it’s Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) who is unafraid to make her own dreams of acceptance a reality; and it’s Edna Turnblad, woken by her daughter to find the woman she almost forget lived within.

I’m still a little floored by how much I enjoyed Hairspray’s toe-tapping excitement mixed with resonate political struggle. The jokes hit often, whether from the witty script by Leslie Dixon or the sight gags such as Waters’ cameo, pregnant women drinking martinis, or rants by the religious, racist, and communist fear-mongering bigots sprinkled about. It’s lampooning of society’s firm grip on wanting to use God as an excuse to be hateful is always a fun trope to watch. And as far as the acting goes, it excelled from standouts Blonksy and Kelley straight down to a surprisingly successful turn from my usual punching bag, Amanda Bynes. Travolta in drag scared me while pictures of Grease caused shudders every time its star and Part 2’s Pfeiffer were onscreen, but even he worked in the end, her discovery of empowerment a welcome aspiration.

However, it’s the music that shone above all with its rocking, catchy tunes. “You Can’t Stop the Beat” is a fantastic piece to sum up the film and others of more import like Latifah’s rousing “I Know Where You’ve Been”, complete with protest march backdrop, will fill you with emotion. Even, though, it utilizes a popularity contest as its climactic struggle, the mission and message underlying every single action is never forgotten, showing how art can educate while it entertains. Who knew such a throwaway looking piece of poppy fluff could pack such a big punch?

[1] John Travolta (left) stars as “Edna Turnblad” and Nikki Blonsky (right) stars as “Tracy Turnblad” in New Line Cinema’s upcoming release of Adam Shankman’s HAIRSPRAY. Photo Credit: ©2007 David James/New Line Cinema
[2] Michelle Pfeiffer (left) stars as “Velma von Tussle” and James Marsden (right) stars as “Corny Collins” in New Line Cinema’s musical, HAIRSPRAY. Photo Credit: ©2007 David James/New Line Cinema
[3] Zac Efron (left) stars as “Link Larkin” and Brittany Snow (right) stars as “Amber von Tussle” in New Line Cinema’s upcoming release of Adam Shankman’s HAIRSPRAY. Photo Credit: ©2007 David James/New Line Cinema

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