Call it corny, campy, or starry-eyed. Hairspray is all that. But if you are complaining about it, then you're a serious sourpuss. Now on its third incarnation, Hairspray is all about having fun unconditionally and celebrating diversity in all shapes, sizes and colours.
Take a sparkling, plus-size girl with an unshakable passion for dancing and combine her with a bunch of black kids with the coolest moves. Add to it the queer chutzpah of original creator John Waters, and what you get is a big romp in the name of solidarity.
Adapted from a Broadway version of Waters' 1988 film, this musical is about Tracy Turnblad (Blonsky), a Baltimorean high-schooler from the early 60s, who dreams of dancing in the city's most popular teen-idol TV program 'The Corny Collins Show' and also of winning the heart of school hottie Link Larkin (Efron). A quick lesson from some black classmates at footing it gets her a chance to both feature in the show and befriend Link.
Racist TV executive and ex-beauty queen Velma Von Tussle (Pfeiffer), already riled by Tracy's hefty presence, notices her affinity with the black folks and manages to cancel the show's monthly Negro Day. This triggers Tracy to make a stand, put everything in jeopardy and cross the racial boundary to protest segregation.
Naturally, a film that treats something as weighty as the civil rights movement so giddily can't be without glitches. Let's not even get into the problems of reducing black criticism of white supremacy to that of simple difference and intolerance. But the African Americans in the film also appear too jaded, put out by their situation yet completely inert, as if waiting for the bubbly optimism of our heroine to rescue them. This is not only na?ve but also dishonest.
Blonsky nevertheless sells it. Zestful, good-natured, and endearing, she is perfectly cast. Unlike most teen stars we've seen in recent years, she is relatable and takes to her role with the greatest authenticity. So naturally does she portray her character's brazen romanticism that her dynamism itself feels like an indictment of the complicity of 'decent', law-abiding individuals maintaining the racist status quo.
And then there is John Travolta in a fat suit as Tracy's heftier mother, Edna, a shy laundress who is over-protective of her daughter and hasn't left home in over two decades. Camp tradition has had it that this role be played by female impersonators. Travolta, however, didn't want to play a drag queen. He wanted to play a woman. Who knows how much this had to do with the Scientology hooey that he subscribes to. But Travolta does well, lending Edna a feminine grace and decorum, soon making us forget that it's a man who's playing the role.
There are other stars like Christopher Walken, Michelle Pfeiffer and Queen Latifah, and director Adam Shankman has handled them well enough to allow them a chance to shine. This is a truly upbeat summer movie. His version of camp may seem a bit moderated, but Hairspray is still an all-inclusive, celebratory shindig.
Director: Adam Shankman
Cast: Nikki Blonsky, John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Queen Latifah, Zac Efron.
2007. PG. 117 min.