My experience with “Hairspray” is limited to a single viewing of the original John Waters film during its theatrical run in 1988. My initial impressions, as well as can be remembered through a couple decades worth of alcohol abuse and (secondhand) bong smoke, is that it was largely good-natured, if tacky and a tad over-the-top. It was also light years from Waters’ usual efforts like “Pink Flamingos” and “Desperate Living,” which were glorious exercises in filth and bad taste. “Hairspray’s” relatively wholesome story about racial integration in early ‘60s Baltimore marked the director’s first foray into true mainstream.
I mention this because I won’t be able to tell you how this latest version (directed by choreographer Adam Shankman) differs from the Broadway musical, (except to make a sarcastic comment about waiting for the singing and dancing version of “Multiple Maniacs.” I don’t know which songs were added or left out, or how newcomer Nikki Blonsky compares to…whoever played the role on stage. And about all I can do to contrast the movie musical based on a Broadway musical based on the original movie is to note that this “Hairspray” is a good deal more wholesome than the 1988 film, further burying – though not obliterating – Waters’ distinctive stamp.
Once again, we’re in 1962 Baltimore, where the visible population is largely Caucasian (I’d love to see a double-feature of this and a few episodes from season three of “The Wire”) and the biggest thing on TV is the “American Bandstand”-esque “Corny Collins Show.” The show’s biggest fan is Tracy Turnblad (Blonsky), who rushes home from high school every day to dance with her best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) and swoon over heartthrob dancer Link Larkin (Zac Efron). An opportunity presents it self when one of Corny’s dance troupe has to take an unplanned nine-month sabbatical, and Tracy jumps at the chance to try out.
Her initial ambitions are thwarted by Amber Von Tussel ( Brittany Snow) – the show’s reigning diva – and her mother, station manager Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer). Velma would no sooner allow a…Reubenesque dancer than she would a black one, as Tracy discovers when she’s assigned detention for skipping class, and her outgoing spirit endears her to the overwhelmingly black complement of punished students.
“Hairspray” isn’t all that bad, frankly. The songs are catchy, most of the leads are engaging enough (Blonksy and Bynes especially), and there’s just enough low-key subversiveness to keep everything from getting too saccharine. As with most musicals, there could have been fewer songs, and the already dilute racial message has been watered down to the extent you’ll wonder why we can’t just play Al Sharpton some doo-wop and stop all this fussin’ and a-feudin’.
On the other hand, this isn’t a Spike Lee joint, and all you people probably care about is how horrible John Travolta is as Tracy’s mother Edna. Surprisingly, he’s pretty good. To be sure, fatsuit comedy is well past its sell-by date, and the romantic number between Edna and husband Wilbur (Christopher Walken) is so grotesquely mesmerizing you may have to up your Ambien dosage, but you’ve seen worse. If nothing else, Travolta is convincing as an ugly broad. More to the point, he’s obviously having a good time.
As movie musicals go, “Hairspray” is one of the better ones. I credit Waters’ influence, the songwriting, and the cast’s enthusiasm. And the fact that it isn’t called “Rent.”