Dir. Adam Shankman. US. 107mins.
As an adaptation of an adaptation, Hairspray beats the odds against turning a musical based on a film into a credible movie, with a punchy cast that delivers the musical numbers without sacrificing the comedy. The score also ups the ante with new numbers added to the songs in the stage version.
The comedy, set around a dance party TV show in 1963 Baltimore, will cross demographic boundaries, when it opens in the US and UK on July 20 (the rest of international enjoys a staggered release throughout August and September). The musical's success on Broadway gives the movie a head-start with a strong brand. So does John Travolta's bravura reprise, in drag and a fat suit, of Divine's housewife role from John Waters's 1988 original. Queen Latifah as the motherly host of a monthly televised 'Negro Night' is another draw.
Younger cast members lack major marquee names, but won't disappoint audiences (especially young ones) looking for an alternative to lacklustre screen musical fare. Dance numbers and raucous physical comedy from Travolta and the young dancers should overcome the sub-title hurdle internationally, offering strong home video potential.
Shot mostly on Toronto soundstages and in a Hamilton, Ontario, high school, Hairspray is the story of Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonski), a plump bouffant-haired girl in Baltimore in 1963, who dreams of dancing on The Corny Collins Show that she watches after school with Penny Pingleton (Bynes) while her enormous laundress mother, Edna (Travolta), irons underwear.
Frustrated that Baltimore's black dancers only appear on the program on the monthly Negro Night, Tracy leads a campaign that integrates the show.
Director and choreographer Adam Shankman (Cheaper By The Dozen 2, The Pacifier, Bringing Down The House) has made a period film as much as a musical, keying in on the kitsch and warmth of 1960s Baltimore, despite the fact that Hairspray passed over the city where John Waters filmed the original.
David Gropman's production design ensures that no one but Baltimoreans and Waters purists will notice. The editing resists MTV-style rapid-fire and lets the performances breathe at half the stage-musical's length, with the popular Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now cut from the score.
Waters fans may fault the film for slighting the Baltimorean's trademark grossness or sexuality. Yet sex was already largely absent from the well-meaning 1988 PG original, in which Waters the renegade moved to the mainstream. The Waters faithful will certainly enjoy the director's cameo, rain-coated, to the tune of Good Morning Baltimore, on the street in the opening credits, as 'the flasher who lives next door,' an homage to local kinkiness. Rikki Lake, who starred in 1988, also has a cameo.
The script by Leslie Dixon (Freaky Friday, The Thomas Crown Affair, Mrs Doubtfire) allows the film's plots enough laughs and momentum so they aren't smothered by song and dance. The dialogue plays wittily on the tv show's rivalry between Tracy (Nikki Blonsky) and blonde Amber (Brittany Snow), who never met a fat joke she didn't like, and on the parallel rivalry between the girls' mothers, with villainous rail-thin station manager Velma Van Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) poised to thwart any Turnblad mother-daughter ambitions.
Nikki Blonski as Tracy plays into the story's Cinderella elements, as a chubby girl agog with the local The Corny Collins Show (hosted by smiley, clean-cut James Marsden), and with one of its heart-throb dancers, Linc Larkin (Zac Efron). Sent to detention for 'inappropriate hair length,' she earns dance credibility with black students there, and launches her integration campaign.
She also finds true love with Linc without losing a pound. Blonski, 17 during filming, has a piercing voice with a natural comic touch and can equal any dancer in the strong cast.
Songs written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman reveal a little-known side of Queen Latifah, who as Motormouth Maybelle, owner of a black record store, sings the poignant civil rights ballad, I Know Where I've Been. Elijah Kelley, who plays her charismatic dancer son, Seaweed, energizes every scene that he's in, especially the ensemble number, Run And Tell That.
As Velma, Pfeiffer won't win any Grammies for her singing, but her voice brings a stinging chill to her intrigues, which collapse when she tries to seduce Tracy's soft-hearted gag-store owner father, Wilbur Turblad (Christopher Walken). He parries her every advance, Waters-style, with a buzzer, a talking doll or a fake turd.
Travolta is a huge cartoon as a super-plus-sized housewife, but his duet with Walken celebrating the strangest of marriages (Timeless To Me) brings a John Waters warmth to a film that's polished over many of the 1988 original's charming rough edges.
New Line Cinema
Ingenious Film Partners
New Line Cinema
Based on the 1988 screenplay by John Waters and the 2002 musical stage play, book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan