I’d be hard-pressed to call Adam Shankman’s Hairspray great filmmaking, but it’s more sheer good-hearted fun than anything that’s come out this summer, and that’s worth as much as great filmmaking—in some ways maybe it’s worth more. Of the new crop of Broadway musicals transferred to the screen, it’s easily my favorite. Oh, sure, Rob Marshall’s Chicago (2002) and Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls (2006) are probably better examples of filmmaking, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I got more honest enjoyment out of Hairspray than out of those two combined.
On occasion Shankman delivers on the promise suggested by the tango between Jennifer Lopez and Matthew McConaughey in his first feature The Wedding Planner (2001). At the time that film came out, I wrote, “Quite the best sequence in the film is an amazingly designed and shot scene where Lopez and McConaughey have their first confrontation after learning of each other’s true circumstances while doing the tango in a dance class. This bit is so breathtakingly accomplished that it comes as no shock to learn that first-time director Adam Shankman previously choreographed a number of films.” Well, here we are six years later—and several uneven (and a couple downright dreadful) movies later—and Shankman is back in the groove. At least one number, “I Can Hear the Bells,” completely fulfills that promise.
If at other times, he seems a little too content to simply record the proceedings, it’s hard to argue the point, because the proceedings are themselves so good. Moreover, he keeps the film moving forward with the same kind of breathless enthusiasm found in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001), even if the two movies have very little in common besides an infectious joie de vivre.
The film—like the stage show—presents a somewhat simplified version of John Waters’ 1988 film of the same name. Waters’ film (which I’m inclined to think is his best) wasn’t a musical, though it almost might as well have been with its soundtrack of period rock ‘n’ roll throughout the film. (After all, it’s a story centered around a low-rent Baltimore version of American Bandstand called The Corny Collins Show.) The plot follows the adventures of overweight teenager Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky), daughter of equally ample laundress Edna Turnblad (John Travolta) and her good-natured husband, joke-shop entrepreneur Wilbur (Christopher Walken). Tracy manages to get a spot on The Corny Collins Show, becomes a local celebrity, gets the boy of her dreams, Link (Zac Efron, TV’s High School Musical), and strikes a blow for equal rights on several fronts. That’s pretty much the story.
Some of the edge is missing from Waters’ original, and the quirky humor is a little less quirky. Though Waters is given a cameo as the neighborhood flasher, there’s nothing in the new film to quite equal his role in his film as a wigged-out psychiatrist attempting some very unorthodox aversion therapy on a character who has become smitten with a black boy. Then too, the original had the marvelous Divine in the role of Edna, and that’s a hard act to follow. Doubtless, John Travolta is more up to the song and dance requirements of the film, but he just can’t pull off Divine’s matter-of-fact delivery. In the original when Divine complains, “I’ve got hampers of ironing to do and my diet pill is wearing off,” there’s an effortless quality that makes it funny. Travolta has a similar line that barely works, because he seems to be trying too hard. Thankfully, Edna has been slightly reconfigured in the musical, turned into a deliberate recluse who’s ashamed to go out into public because of her weight. Imagining Divine lacking this kind of self-confidence is impossible, but it works for Travolta and makes the difference appealing rather than disappointing.
Much of the sense of teen rebellion has been axed, too. In favor of a somewhat cozier approach, jokes about Tracy’s hair and her status as a “hair-hopper” have been dropped (though oddly, she plays the final scene with the same kind of ironed-flat hair as in the original). Blessedly, however, Shankman hasn’t allowed this sort of thing to prettify the material too much. There are still rats on the streets of Baltimore. When people dance in the street, it looks like a street and not a freshly scrubbed soundstage. When Tracy misses her bus early in the film, she rides to school on a garbage truck.
The songs may not be immediately memorable, but they work as splendid pastiches of early rock ‘n’ roll. And then there’s the cast. Apart from Travolta, who takes a little getting used to until his character goes in a different direction than in the original film, there’s not a false note in the cast. If it’s true that casting is half the battle, Hairspray was probably three-quarters of the way home on performers alone. Blonsky is truly a find. Michelle Pfeiffer is perfect. Christopher Walken couldn’t be better. Elijah Kelley (Take the Lead) will probably achieve stardom from this. Even Amanda Bynes finally gets to do something interesting on-screen. And, of course, there’s Queen Latifah, a performer who adds to anything she’s in. Maybe this time she’ll get the Oscar she deserved for Chicago. It’s all fun and lively and sweet-natured, and its message of tolerance and acceptance rings just as true now as ever. Rated PG for language, some suggestive content and momentary teen smoking.