Hairspray (8/10)

Upon first seeing the posters advertising the upcoming musical adventure based on John Waters’s cult hit, I was bored, to be honest. It looked like the kind of movie that, if I went to it, I would spend most of my time over-analyzing everything and not having a good time at all. Then it began to get rave reviews, and it’s at a solid 93% on rottentomatoes, which really intrigued me. I realized Zac Efron, the heartthrob from the Disney channel smash High School Musical, played a main character, and as I believe he demonstrated real acting potential in this movie, I was even more intrigued. The trailers began to look like a lot of fun. I went to see it on Monday, and it ended up being a rollicking fun bubbly romp with no strings attached, dance-a-licious from beginning to end with perfectly cast, perfectly campy, and perfectly enjoyable from beginning to end.

Tracy Turnblad (played with exuberant energy by newcomer Nikki Blonsky) is an overweight teenager who loves to dance and sing in Baltimore in 1962, but whose aspirations are consistently looked down upon by her mother, Edna Turnblad, played by none other than John Travolta. I wasn’t sure what to expect with this casting choice. Would it be nothing more than a silly gimmick? No, surprisingly enough. Travolta is wonderfully endearing as Edna, and not once does she come off as disgusting or unlikeable. To move along with the plot, Tracy gets cast on an American Bandstand look-a-like, the Corny Collins show, much to the chagrin of Velma Von Tussle, who would have the show consist of nothing more than perfect looking boys and girls, all of whom would preferrably under 170 pounds. She is played by the villainous vixen Michelle Pfeiffer, who hits every note (both literally and figuratively) expertly, stealing every scene she’s in and relishing every snotty flip of her hair and snide comment with gusto. She absolutely abhors the idea of integration; to her, even once a month Negro day is too much – it’s all about the white preppy kids. Unfortunately for her, Tracy is dead set on integration after she makes friends with the detention class, made up mostly of fun-loving dancing black kids, led by their ringleader, Elijah Kelley, who starred in Stomp the Yard and styles his ultra cool dance moves to perfectly fit the era of the film.

If you haven’t yet figured it out, casting is probably the strongest point of the movie. Aside the from the stellars already mentioned, several other expertly chosen stars shine. Zac Efron as the guy the girls go ga-ga for, Link Larkin, takes a clear step up from his Disney channel role and shows even further great potential as an actor. Christopher Walken as John Travolta’s semi-clueless husband is subdued and just Christopher Walken-y enough to enjoy. James Marsden as Corny Collins dazzles with his effortless wide smile and corny (pun intended) attitude throughout the whole film. Queen Latifah brings charisma, respect, and attitude to her role of Motormouth Maybelle, the head of Negro Day. Nikki Blonsky, the newcomer of the bunch, is a perfect choice and she blends in wonderfully with the rest of the cast and shares great chemistry with Zac Efron. Her voice is amazing, too, which brings me to the second-best thing about this film, the music.

From the rousing opening number “Good Morning, Baltimore” to the dancy, flashy, fun finale “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” Hairspray is first and foremost a movie that will make you want to get up out of your seat and dance in the aisles, singing along with the terrific cast. Each song is a show-stopping, fever-inducing, thrill ride that the entire cast puts all of their hearts into. The music is perfect for a 60’s era, with just a touch late fifties fun. Several stand-out musical numbers alone make the entire movie worth the price of admission. “Good Morning Baltimore” opens the whole thing on a wonderfully high note, “I Can Hear the Bells” is deliciously funny, “Welcome to the 60’s” is a great number featuring both Travolta and Blonsky, “You’re Timeless to Me” is a sweet romantic love song that’s a refreshing break from all the loud dance numbers, and “You Can’t Stop the Beat” closes everything off with a loud bang that is an excellent end to a great film. Every song is hip, fun, groovy, and easy to bob your head and tap your feet to. You may even find yourself humming along, or, as I did, unsuccessfully attempting to guess the lyrics as it went along. All this being sad, however, Hairspray’s near fatal-flaw is that, eventually, all the songs begin to sound alike.

As I left the theater, there were only two songs that stuck in my mind. “Good Morning Baltimore” and “You’re Timeless to Me”, both undoubtedly the best songs of the movie. “Good Morning Baltimore” probably stuck in my head because the whole thing began with it, but it’s also a sensationally amazing opening song with great camera work and acting as Tracy strolls to the bus stop on her way to school. “You’re Timeless to Me” stuck in my head because it’s a delightfully sweet love ballad that is brutally frank and honest about what real love is – it’s not some blind ignorance of your loved one’s faults and foibles – but a brutal acknowledgment of them and a love that looks past all that and to what really matters. Christopher Walken and John Travolta are also not creepy in any way, which is a remarkable accomplishment considering that Travolta is a man basically dressed in drag. It’s a beautiful song, and the highlight of the movie. And though the rest of the songs are completely fun, they do blend together.”It’s Hairspray,” “The Nicest Kids in Town,” “Ladies Choice,” and “Run and Tell That” could almost be different parts of the same song. “Big, Blonde, and Beautiful” and “I Know where I’ve Been” sound very similar, I could almost be fooled into thinking they were the same song. “Without Love” is a great song in the moment, and sweet at its heart, but forgettable if you don’t try to think about it once you leave the theatre.

Hairspray’s other flaw is the black and white characters. (Again, pardon the pun. Geez, what is wrong with me?) Everybody is divided along completely equal lines, with no room for bleed over. Those who are good are squeaky clean, and those who are bad ooze evil intentions. Obviously, I’m not expecting anything of some grand drama caliber – this is called a fun romp for a reason – demands of multi-dimensional characters don’t weight on it as much. But all the good guys are so unquestionably good and all the bad guys are so unquestionably bad that there were times I simply found it kind of boring. Another thing that annoyed me was the mom of one of the main characters, who is portrayed as this evil brimstone-preaching Cruella de Vil of sorts, and in the end she isn’t really important at all, no redemption of her character happens, she is just given an unceremonious end. At least Michelle Pfeiffer’s character had a good ending and wasn’t tossed aside for the sake of a better dance scene.

Quibbles and squabbles and problems may come and go, but at the end of the day, I just found this movie incredibly fun. I don’t think I’ve had this much sheer uninhibited fun at the movies all summer. Sure, I’ve been awed at the special effects of Transformers, I’ve been stunned by Sunshine’s spectacle, I’ve been entranced with Ratatouille’s story,but no movie has made me just want to get up and dance more. If you ever have just a plain musical craving, Hairspray will satisfy that need like none other. It’s fun, harmless, exhilarating, endearing, sweet eye, ear, and foot candy that’ll have you tip tappity tapping your feet, swing swingety swinging your hips, and hip hop hoppitying all the way home.


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