Hairspray (2007) dir. Adam Shankman
Starring: Nikky Blonsky, Michelle Pfieffer, John Travolta, Zac Efron, Elijah Kelly, Christopher Walken, Queen Latifah
I can’t help compare “Hairspray” to its most recent closest cousins “Chicago” and “Dreamgirls”. It’s my third and least favourite. It’s a bumblegum musical with a softy message about image and race discrimination. The film would fall apart if not for Nikki Blonsky who holds the film together with her spunky performance.
I haven’t seen the John Waters version so the review of the film will stand on its own, without any preconceptions.
Tracey Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) is an overweight Baltimore high school student who, like every other teenager in the town, dreams of being on the local music variety show ‘The Corny Collins Show”. When the show announces its holding auditions for a new member of the troupe Nikki is excited. She is accidentally discovered and is cast in the show much to the dismay of her mother (John Travolta in drag) and the evil music choreographer Velma Van Tussle (Michelle Pfieffer). While performing on the show she discovers some mistreatment of the black dancers, who are segregated and relegated to an episode once a week – dubbed ‘Negro Day’. Tracey works with one of the black dancers, Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) to integrate the show and make life better for all.
The film, which takes place in the early 1960’s, has a time and place naiveté to it. When they refer to ‘Negro Day’ it’s a point of comedy considering how ridiculous such a thing sounds. The dramatic counterpoint is that indeed, those attitudes were commonplace and accepted back in the day. Another interesting aspect that Tracey’s weight is never mocked. It’s taken for granted, and though the stuck up choreographer Velma Van Tussle loathes Tracey’s addition to the show, weight is not overtly referenced. Therefore we get past the crude fat jokes without ever bringing it up. Thank God.
As for the music and dance numbers, Nikki is a little pinball of energy and she looks like a hell of a lot of fun to dance with. She embodies Tracey Turnblad. The song and dances unfortunately don’t rise to the level of Nikki’s enthusiasm. They are adequate, but not finger tapping, or memorable enough to be stuck in my head afterwards. The finest performer in the entire film is Elijah Kelley who is a stand out as Seaweed. But his superior dance moves and fine soulful voice feels bottled up with the standard material.
I could never get past John Travolta in drag. It’s just too absurd, even for John Waters. Respect to Christopher Walken who has to play his husband and lover. The mere sight of Walken dancing and embracing a fat-suit-wearing John Travolta is something purposely excised from my memory.
Two and a half stars may be tough on the film, but considering the unanimous praise and 93% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I have to be honest. I would rather see “Dreamgirls” or “Chicago” over “Hairspray” any day. Once is enough. Enjoy.