“Hairspray” was the film I was most looking forward to this summer, and am very pleased to report that I was not disappointed. Ever since I saw - and loved - a touring production of the play several years ago and heard about the upcoming movie, I’ve been chomping at the bit to see it.
Based on the 1998 film written and directed by John Waters (who cameos in the 2007 version as a flasher), “Hairspray” is exuberant entertainment from first frame to last. On a personal level the film won me over from the first scene, where a newspaper lands on a stoop with the date May 3, 1962 on it. That’s my birthday, month, day and year. Very cool.
It’s all about Tracy Turnblad (new comer Nikki Blonsky, extremely winning), a chubby youngster in 1962 Baltimore who dreams of dancing on TV on a local dance show called “The Corny Collins Show.” Despite not having the looks or demeanor of the average dancer on the show, she wins the audition and then proceeds to shake things up further by making the show’s monthly “Negro Day” a daily affair.
It’s so great to see a modern musical that isn’t ashamed of its musical roots. As much as I enjoyed “Chicago”, I resented the producer’s implications that audiences wouldn’t accept a traditional musical where the characters break into song and dance, so instead they had all the numbers take place inside the character’s heads.
I also enjoyed “The Producers” though watching the coming attractions trailer you would never know it was a musical. Come on people, you bought the rights to the property, have the courage of your convictions.
Fortunately, “Hairspray” is a traditional musical in the best sense, and celebrates that in a brash and brassy manner. The fact that the show I saw on a Saturday night was sold out, and there was big applause at the end, means maybe these “creative” folk in Hollywood don’t know as much as they think. Good. Always a fine thing to shake up Hollywood executives. Maybe then we wouldn’t be getting so many useless sequels to movies that no one wants sequels to in the first place. End of rant.
John Travolta is a marvel as Edna, Tracy’s mom. It’s not stunt casting, as Travolta plays a flesh and blood character who generates great sympathy. All the roles are expertly cast, and it was great to see Michelle Pfeiffer again. One of my favorite actresses, she has been absent from the screen for far too long.
Special kudos go to Elijah Kelly, who plays Seaweed. This kid can dance up a storm, and he makes it look so effortless. He’s going to be a big star.
There’s nary a dull moment on view, and it’s the type of movie you watch with a smile on your face the entire time. When was the last time that happened?
On the debit side, I wish director Adam Shankman had shot the numbers with a little more finesse. The dancers are talented and the choreography is there so let the dancers do their stuff and get out of the way. I hate it when directors shoot dance sequences from the waist up. Shoot the entire dancer head to foot so we can see the entire body move. Also, some of the cutting is a bit too quick for my taste. Shankman gets it right about 50 percent of the time, but I was hoping for 100 percent.
The final number “You Can’t Stop the Beat” is a real rouser (I think it will soon play in steady rotation on the wedding dinner DJ circuit, along with the ubiquitous “Grease” medley), and it’s well done here, but I wish some of the cutaways had been kept to a minimum. At one point Amber, Tracy’s rival, is hoisted up onstage and she gets tangled in the ropes and eventually falls down. I don’t think we need this. We want to see the singing and dancing, not these cutaways. It’s not funny and interrupts the flow of the number. Just get her out of the way and let us enjoy the number.
These are very small quibbles. Overall, “Hairspray” is hugely enjoyable. I can’t imagine anyone not liking it. Judging by the audience’s response, it’s going to be around a long time.
Rating for “Hairspray”: Three and a half stars.