We’ve heard this song before, but it’s got a good beat and you can definitely dance to it
By Devin D. O’Leary
Directed by Adam Shankman
Cast: Nikki Blonsky, John Travolta, Christopher Walken
Why? It’s a valid question. Or questions, actually. Why is Hollywood so obsessed with remakes? Mostly because it requires very little thought on the part of creatively bankrupt studio executives. So why is Broadway remaking so many movies as musical stage shows? (Xanadu, Young Frankenstein and Legally Blonde are just a few of the choice offerings on the Great White Way this season.) Probably because they appeal easily to the busloads of uncultured tourists who show up in Manhattan every day looking for tickets to Cats. Then why, in the name of all that is holy, is Hollywood now remaking the remakes Broadway already remade? ... That, my friends, is a mystery.
It started in 2005 when Universal Pictures decided it would be a brilliant idea to take the Broadway musical adaptation of Mel Brooks’ 1968 comedy The Producers and turn it back into a movie. (Actually, it started with 1986’s Little Shop of Horrors, but that was a bit ahead of the curve.) The Producers (2005) was a critical and economic failure, garnering blasé reviews and earning less than half of its budget back. Why? Because it was lousy, that’s why.
Now comes Hairspray, a remake of the Broadway musical remake of John Waters’ cult hit comedy from 1988. Need I say it? ... Why?
Being a fan of John Waters in general and Hairspray in particular, I can’t say I was looking forward to New Line’s revisionist version. It’s directed by Adam Shankman (The Wedding Planner, Bringing Down the House, The Pacifier, Cheaper By the Dozen 2), for crying out loud! How heretical can you get? But having sat through every toe-tapping minute of the thing, I’m forced to admit it’s a damn fine piece of pure pop enjoyment—like a sweet, rainbow-colored snowcone on a long, hot summer day.
The basic plot and setting remain the same. It’s 1962 Baltimore and plump high schooler Tracy Turnblad teaches her hometown a thing or two about tolerance after landing a spot on a popular TV dance show. The role of Tracy, originated by Ricki Lake, is taken over now by new-kid-in-town Nikki Blonsky. The 20-year-old Long Island gal proves herself a spunky little spark plug, belting and hoofing her way through trademark numbers like “Good Morning, Baltimore” and “Welcome to the ’60s.” Blonsky perfectly embodies Tracy’s zaftig charm and unquenchably positive spirit. She’s a real discovery and a key element to Hairspray’s appeal.
Rounding out the high-quality cast are John Travolta and Christopher Walken as Nikki’s supportive mom and pop (more on that later), Amanda Bynes (“The Amanda Show”) as her best friend, Zac Efron (High School Musical) as the hunky object of her affections, Michelle Pfeiffer (Fabulous Baker Boys) as a villainous TV station executive, Queen Latifah (Chicago) as an inspirational disc jockey and James Marsden (X-Men) as the hip host of the afternoon dance show around which so much of this story revolves.
Travolta is the one I had the most reservations against, partly because he’s replacing iconic performer Divine, partly because he’s shown such a tendency to overact lately and partly because he looks so damn awful in drag. At least some of this is ameliorated by his game performance. He’s probably the weakest link in the cast, but even I’m forced to admit there’s something amusing about watching the star of Saturday Night Fever prance around in high heels.
The script takes a few liberties with the original text. Those who have memorized the first film and the stage version will find quite a few surprises here. For the most part, these additions work well. The film hammers its message home a bit harder than it probably needs to. Our heroine’s general plea for acceptance turns into a more specific appeal for racial integration, and the film’s final few chapters provide plenty of speeches/songs about tolerance. My only major grouse, though, is with the loss of the “beatnik” characters from the first film. Without them, Tracy’s final transformation comes across as a bit arbitrary.
Still, Hairspray is topnotch fun. The songs are catchy, the clothes are outrageous and the actors look like they’re having a ball. The message (even if it is overstated) is touching and always timely. I guarantee you’ll be grinning from start to finish.
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