JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Hairspray (Director/Choreographer: Adam Shankman) - December 28, 2007


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117 min.

Musical weighs in lightly on racism

Hairspray 2007 valiantly tries to dance up a storm and score social points in the arena of 1962 integration, but can’t find an unforgettable song or deliver an incredible dance sequence that forgives all of the often lame dialogue (“If we can’t put a smile on your face, your skin’s too tight.”) or plot points that are more predictable than any stage mom’s real motivation to sacrifice for her unexpectedly talented child.

Based on John Waters’ 1988 screenplay and the recent musical (book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan), Leslie Dixon is left with the considerable task of turning all of those sources into a cohesive whole. Other challenges arise from Marc Shaiman’s original music: it’s peppy, fun and poignant when required but can’t produce a melody that lingers in memory past the double bars. First-time director and choreographer Adam Shankman, further challenged by a shoot schedule that makes Michael Tronick’s editing a near miracle (only a couple of sagging cutaways hamper the pace and flow), shows future promise and skill (having the “whites” sit at the back of the bus is a nice touch) but the unlikely showstopper of the “laundry ballet” (replete with red rose) only serves to demonstrate how great the BIG ensemble pieces could have been.

It falls to individual efforts by the cast to keep the eye and ear coming back for more.

John Travolta, so in touch with his chubby and fem sides, is an absolute marvel as the food-aholic Edna Turnblad—mother of newbie “big girl” Tracy (Nikki Blonsky, who shakes everything up with unleashed conviction). Father Wilbur—purveyor of whoopee cushions, etc—is done up to a hilarious tee by Christopher Walken. As the scheming rival mother of the blonde (Britanny Snow), Michelle Pfeiffer exudes great fun and lechery in her quest to retake top talent-hunt honours on the aptly titled dance-hop, The Corny Collins Show. With so many audience-votes, “reality” sing, dance or navigate shows currently leading the rating parade on present-day mainstream TV, it’s instructive to go back in time to see how there’s nothing really new under the vote-for-your-favourite sun.

On the darker side of the ledger, Elijah Kelley soars, sizzles and seduces as Seaweed—artistic leader of the black rat pack that is only permitted to hit the air waves on “Negro Night.” Here’s hoping his obvious skill won’t go unmissed by box-office conscious producers and a vehicle can be found to let him loose with his art. Somewhere, Sammy Davis Jr. is smiling!

Queen Latifah was first-rate in her motherly role as Motormouth Maybelle, even as her affable charge, Little Inez (Taylor Parks) tore up both the stage and the plot.

Boomers who recall the heady times of live, Saturday afternoon sock-hops on local stations (in my case, hosted by the late Peter Jennings who danced his way to the top) will savour every frame of Hairspray as its severe hairstyles and jukebox tone ignite memories from their own teenage years; newcomers to this freedom-focussed narrative may wonder what all of the fuss is about, but will come away with the sense that maybe their parents aren’t as stuffy as they’d like to believe. JWR

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