As immensely appealing entertainment, ‘Hairspray’ more than holds up - Travolta, Pfeiffer lead cast in big, bouncy musical remake
If there was ever a movie to get your beehive in a twirl, it’s “Hairspray.”
True to its title, Hollywood’s take on the huge Broadway hit takes hold and never lets go. Every strand falls neatly in place, as it piles great songs and even greater performances into layer upon layer of toe-tapping entertainment.
It’s easily the most PG-rated fun I’ve had at the movies this summer, which is surprising because I walked into “Hairspray” expecting it to fall flatter than a flattop. Who knew a candy-colored concoction about a chubby teenager chasing her dancing dream could be so lush and voluminous?
Director Adam Shankman did, and it’s his outstanding choreography that gives “Hairspray” that needed goose of mousse to set it apart. It’s song and dance done right, with exuberance, style and lots of wholesome sex appeal.
Adding to its fullness are a pair of full-figure gals, one a sensational newcomer in 18-year-old Nikki Blonsky, and the other a cherished old-timer in John Travolta, who if memory serves me right, isn’t really a woman, but sure knows how to affectingly play one.
The two are sensational as the antithesis of those famously beautiful and hip Gilmore Girls. You could even call them the Girth Girls, a mother-daughter team refreshingly aware that real beauty comes from within even though they are mostly without when it comes to popularity, success and wealth.
They also have the added burden of living in Baltimore, circa 1962, a time and place where tolerance and being different are about as welcome as Karl Rove at a Democratic gathering. They’re both round – very round – pegs trying to fit into a square world, a theme that has been a part of every incarnation of “Hairspray,” from the bawdy 1988 John Waters original, starring Ricki Lake and the incomparable Divine, to the more respectable Broadway hit featuring Harvey Fierstein that won eight Tonys in 2002.
In returning the cellulite to celluloid, writer Leslie Dixon (“Mrs. Doubtfire”) mixes and matches pieces of the stage and screen versions with varying degrees of success. At times she gets caught in that purgatory between sincerity and camp by trying to be both over the top and deadly serious about the film’s twin themes of self-esteem and racial equality. She’s never preachy or pious about it, though, which is a good thing.
As are the songs penned by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, each more infectious than the other, including a couple of new selections that have been added to their Tony-winning score.
Who better to sing them than a dazzling collection of Hollywood’s top triple-threat (sing, dance, act) performers in Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Queen Latifah and Christopher Walken, who few know started out as a song-and-dance man before he started winning Oscars playing thugs and deeply troubled individuals.
As Wilbur, the proprietor of the Hardy Har Hut joke shop and impossibly sweet patriarch of Baltimore’s Turnblad clan, Walken is funny, sweet and just a tad eccentric in supplying a bottomless source of encouragement to his hefty wife, Edna (Travolta) and plus-sized daughter, Tracy (Blonsky), as they go about desegregating Baltimore with unbridled chirpiness.
The battleground in this race war is the estimable “Corny Collins Show,” a weekday afternoon TV teen dance staple that prides itself on featuring “the nicest kids in town” (code for squeaky clean whites).
The kids who are really the nicest, and most talented, of course, are the black dancers, who in a blatant display of condescension by diva-like station owner Amber von Tussle (Pfeiffer in top form) have been relegated to one appearance per month, for what she calls “Negro day,” an all-black soiree overseen by Latifah’s Motormouth Maybelle.
It’s an archaic policy everyone has resigned themselves to, except Tracy, who sets the wheels of change in motion by first wowing the show’s boyish, egotistical host (think Dick Clark in his prime) into hiring her as a dancer and then joins Corny (“Ally McBeal” refugee James Marsden) in pushing Van Tussle to integrate the show.
No small task, considering she’s a racist pig, as is her snooty daughter, Amber (Brittany Snow), the three-time reigning Miss Hairspray and main squeeze of the hottest boy in town, Link Larkin (Zac Efron, star of the wildly popular “High School Musical”).
Both are due some comeuppance and you can bet Tracy and Edna will deliver it, but never with malice, just song and dance.
Shankman, thankfully, never lets things like plot and social messages get in the way of creating a good time. “Hairspray” is first and foremost about having fun, something that his actors fully understand, as they never oversell their roles, whether its a pair of terrific newcomers in Elijah Kelley (watch our for this handsome talented kid) and Taylor Parks as Motormouth’s dance-happy kids, or old pros like Travolta and Pfeiffer.
It’s what makes the difference between “Hairspray” being a good musical and a great one. So great, in fact, I’ll bet even a little bald guy named Oscar might take a shine to it.
(PG for language, some suggestive content and momentary teen smoking.) Cast includes John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Nikki Blonsky, Queen Latifah and Zac Efron. Directed by Adam Shankman. 3 stars