Archive for July 20, 2007

Hairspray (2007)

July 20, 2007

If we can’t have a new John Waters movie this year, a movie based on a musical based on a John Waters movie will have to do. Hairspray began life in 1988 as Waters’ first all-ages film (after he’d spent many years scandalizing the prudes with such kamikaze efforts as Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble) and then, in 2002, blossomed into a popular Broadway musical. At first, I couldn’t see the point of making a movie based on the musical, when there was already a perfectly good and funny movie. But this Hairspray honors its source and emerges as a relentless joy machine, always ready to belt out a song or launch into dance. I like to think this is the movie Waters might’ve made if he’d had the budget back then.

As the chubby heroine Tracy Turnblad, who yearns to dance on The Corny Collins Show, newcomer Nikki Blonsky, a cherubic gumdrop of a girl, takes the screen with grace and charisma and no visible sweat, just the way Ricki Lake did nineteen years ago. It’s 1962 — in other words, the extended ‘50s before JFK fell and the sky darkened — and Tracy’s favorite dance show is segregated. One day out of the week is Negro Day, where the real excitement and nasty dance moves happen; the rest of the week is lily-white, lorded over by bleached station manager Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer). Corny Collins himself doesn’t have much of a problem with giving the floor over to Negroes or chubbies, but Velma, who wants her own daughter Amber (Brittany Snow) to win Miss Teen Baltimore, seems to be the one calling the shots.

The look of Hairspray is inspired, starting with the exuberant and ironic opening number “Good Morning, Baltimore,” in which Tracy bops through the city among women in pastels and gray, depraved men. Very much in keeping with Waters’ vision, this Baltimore is like a dead skunk wearing pink hair rollers. (The movie was shot in Toronto, though.) Hairspray is loaded with idiosyncratic characters, which I think is what has made it a success in any version; for instance, there’s Tracy’s lollipop-sucking best friend Penny (Amanda Bynes), who falls in love with Negro dancer Seaweed (Elijah Kelley), whose mother is the legendary Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah), who oversees Negro Day. Everyone has kinks and quirks; this is Waters’ dream Baltimore, his valentine to the days when things were still square and could be shaken up.

As Tracy’s doting mother Edna — a role filled by the late, great Divine in the ‘88 film and by Harvey Feirstein on Broadway — John Travolta, broad of body and with dark brown ringlets framing his moon face, transcends the trap of novelty. His Edna is a gently insecure creation, and the pairing of him and Christopher Walken as Edna’s devoted husband Wilbur is more funkily bizarre than a lot of things in actual John Waters films. Old pros Travolta and Walken, both with backgrounds in song and dance, sing the lilting duet “(You’re) Timeless to Me,” and the damn thing overrides its own subtextual strangeness and becomes sweetly daffy. If I hadn’t already fallen in love with the movie, this number would’ve sealed the deal. (One quibble about Travolta: In the ‘88 film, Divine played both Edna and, in boy mode, racist studio chief Arvin Hodgepile; I wanted to see Travolta put in a quick appearance as Hodgepile too, but no such luck.)

In any incarnation, but perhaps especially this one, Hairspray’s main currency is a sort of naïve perversity. It comes down specifically in favor of fat chicks and interracial love, but the coded message is tolerance in general. Its sensibility is strongly gay — via Waters, of course, but also composer-lyricist Marc Shaiman and this film’s director-choreographer Adam Shankman. The movie loves its pre-PC Baltimore, with its Negro Day and its glimpses of pregnant women casually drinking and smoking; this Baltimore is a semi-slimy caterpillar about to morph into a butterfly. In the meantime, the women all look like the AbFab duo (or junior versions thereof), while the straight white men are drunks, pervs, or haplessly harmless joke-shop proprietors like Wilbur. But there’s redemption available for almost everyone, and Hairspray puts you in a good mood. It’s probably the most generous and loving story Waters will ever tell, and it’s retold here with verve and an infectious sense of fun.