Screenwriter: Leslie Dixon
Starring: Nikki Blonksy, John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Queen Latifah, Zac Efron, James Marsden, Brittany Snow
Running time: 117 mins
Heaven knows how John Travolta makes his career choices. Hollywood’s biggest chance-blower - he turned down the leads in American Gigolo, Forrest Gump and Fatal Attraction - has chosen to end his three-decade hiatus from movie musicals by hoofing in Hairspray: the big screen version of the Broadway adaptation of John Waters’ cult 1988 kitsch-fest. It gets weirder. Our hipshakin’ hero’s first character in a musical since Grease’s Danny Zuko takes the unique form of Edna Turnblad, a super-sized agoraphobic with a 60EEE chest and a Winehouse-rivalling beehive. You couldn’t make it up, could you?
Tracy Turnblad (Blonsky) is a chubby outsider whose dream is to dance on The Corny Collins Show, Baltimore’s hippest TV dance party. When one of the show’s regular performers drops out – for an unplanned nine-month “break” - Tracy auditions to replace her against the wishes of her anxious mother (Travolta). Although the show’s producer, the noxious Velma von Tussle (Pfeiffer), is too size-conscious even to consider our hefty heroine, Tracy gets her break after impressing Corny (Marsden) with her idiosyncratic moves. She proves so popular with the show’s audience that she looks poised to snatch the title of Miss Hairspray 1962 from Velma’s self-promoting daughter (Snow). But, just as she’s becoming a teen icon, Tracy realises that life isn’t as carefree as The Corny Collins Show would suggest. Although the show holds ‘Negro Day’ once a month, the network forbids blacks and whites from dancing together on screen. An outraged Tracy organises a march against segregation, but will it spell the end of her dancing career?
Hairspray is Hollywood’s straightest – or should that be gayest? – musical in years. Unlike Rob Marshall’s Oscar-winning Chicago, it doesn’t use its song-and-dance numbers as mere illustrative tools; nor does it attempt to curry favour with the audience – in a Moulin Rouge-esque fashion - by throwing in ironic reinterpretations of contemporary pop songs. In true MGM style, the big set-pieces are the beating heart of this movie. Director Shankman’s routines – including the obligatory street-dancing spectacular – are ostentatious, vividly choreographed and packed with more bounce than a rubber ball. The film’s soundtrack, featuring a dozen slices of sugary, Ronettes-style girl group pop, is just as infectious.
Initially the film’s tone is as light and airy as a whisked egg yolk. It pokes fun at its characters’ harmless foibles, sends up the day-glo fashions of the early sixties, and even finds time for a knowing cameo from John Waters, who appears as a lusty-eyed flasher. But this early frivolity makes way for a more serious message. Leslie Dixon’s script deftly captures the crushing injustice of the segregation era, but its focus on such a grave issue can’t help but weigh down a film whose first half was a gleeful paean to the fun (dancing), the hip (pop music) and the kitsch (the assortment of gravity-defying beehives sported by the film’s female cast members).
Much as Hairspray serves as a showcase for the effervescent charms of newcomer Blonsky – who won the role of Tracy after beating thousands of hopefuls at an open casting – its greatest trick is to revitalise the careers of a few old Hollywood faithfuls. Pfeiffer, in only her fifth film role this decade, is a joy to watch as the bitchy Velma: rail-thin, acid-tongued and as bigoted as Bernard Manning, she’s the perfect pantomime villainess. But the real revelation is Travolta, who transcends his character’s truly bizarre appearance and Dr Evil-from-Austin-Powers accent to bring genuine warmth and empathy to Edna. His moves are still pretty nifty, too. Who’d have thought it would take a sex change, four hours of prosthetic make-up and a fat suit to make John Travolta seem this comfortable in his skin again?