Judge Patrick Naugle is past president of the Corny Collins fan club.
Our reviews of Hairspray (1988) (published May 22nd, 2001), Hairspray (2007) (Blu-ray) (published November 20th, 2007), Hairspray (2007) (published November 13th, 2007), and Very Crudely Yours: The John Waters Collection (published August 22nd, 2005) are also available.
A new comedy by John Waters.
Set in Baltimore of the early 1960s, Hairspray focuses on "The Corny Collins Show," a teenage dance show featuring an enthusiastically dapper host (Shawn Thompson). A hit with all the kids, heavyset Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake, Cabin Boy) auditions for the show, impressing with her smooth dance moves and bubbly personality, much to the dismay of the show's current teen star, Amber von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick, pop star Vitamin C). Tracy's mother Edna (Waters' immortal collaborator Devine, Pink Flamingos) is skeptical at first but quickly warms to Tracy's passion. With best friend Penny Pingleton (Leslie Ann Powers, in her only film role) in tow, and high society parents (pop stars Debbie Harry and Sonny Bono) wanting to keep the weighty Tracy from her newfound celebrity, Tracy is about to show the town of Baltimore just what she's made of!
Writer/director John Waters' name isn't synonymous with family entertainment. The infamous director's filmography is peppered with pictures that feature images so shocking they were often released unrated. From sex with live chickens to eating actual dog excrement, Waters' is not a filmmaker who revels in taste or tact. Until the release of Hairspray, Waters was considered a fringe artist best known to midnight movie audiences and those seeking out the trashiest of B-movies. Here, for the first time, Waters gave us a film that didn't require audiences to show proof of age on a State ID.
Hairspray garnered only modest initial success, taking in $8 Million at the box office, but later developed a cult following on home video. Cult status is where it would have stayed had it not been turned into a hugely successful, Tony Award winning musical by writers Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, and composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Following its Broadway success, Hairspray was turned into yet another movie, adapting the musical starring John Travolta, Christopher Walken, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Queen Latifah which went on to gross over $200 Million. Apparently, what goes around comes around.
I hadn't seen the original Hairspray since its theatrical release, with no clue what kind of director John Waters was. Twenty five years later, I'm struck by how silly and innocent it all is. Considering Waters background—this is the man who made Female Trouble and Pecker—it's weird to see him making a warm, nostalgic, feel good musical. It's like finding out Sam Peckinpah was the man behind Finding Nemo.
John Waters has never been one to toil in deep character or audience pathos, which is pretty clear when viewing this broadly drawn caricatures of the era; chipper TV show host, stodgy council members, overly concerned mothers, and snotty rich kids. Most of the cast, while decent, aren't giving Oscar worthy performances. Devine shows surprising restraint, and even a modicum of tenderness, as Tracy's mother. Ricki Lake is confident and funny as the teen dancing queen. The supporting cast is a concoction of oddities which also include Water's regular Mink Stole, comedian Jerry Stiller, R&B legend Ruth Brown, Ric Ocasek and Pia Zadora each playing a variation on a theme.
Though not too in-your-face, Waters does have something to say with Hairspray, the movie often ruminating on being yourself and accepting others for who they are. Tracy is obviously an overweight girl, but that never seems to stop her or her mother from reaching for her dreams. Also touched upon is the issue of race and segregation, and how black teenagers aren't allowed on "The Corny Collins Show" (except on Negro Thursdays). While I wouldn't consider Waters to be subversive, he does get some sly jabs in at those who revel in racism and bigotry.
Hairspray effectively captures the early 1960s with tacky costumes, horrible hairstyles, and chintzy looking furniture, truly making us believe the film was set in 1962. The music includes lesser known hits from artists like Gene Pitney, the Ray Bryant Combo, Little Peggy March, and The Five Du-Tones, plus the title song "Hairspray" by Rachel Sweet and Debbie Harry. Waters has an ear for music, and the soundtrack effectively captures the tone of the era. It isn't great art, but it is a good time.
Hairspray (Blu-ray) is presented in 1.78:1/1080p HD widescreen. There are moments when the image really pops (especially on the colorful Corny Collins sets), but the overall picture quality isn't fantastic. While certainly a step up from standard def, it's not as sparklingly fantastic as fans might hope. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is a passable presentable mix that gets its biggest boost from the pop and rock songs of the day. Though it won't give your home theater a huge workout, it does complement the film nicely. Also included are Dolby 2.0 Stereo mixes in Italian and German, a Dolby 1.0 Mono mix in Spanish, plus English SDH, French, German, Italian, and Spanish subtitles.
A fine assortment of bonus features includes a commentary from John Waters and Rikki Lake; a selection of short featurettes ("Get to Know," "Hairspray Featurette," "Vincent Peranio: Hairspray's Production Design," "Rachel Talalay: Production Hairspray," "Two Original Deaners: Linda and Gene Snyder," "Divine in Memoriam," "A Portrait of Cookie Mueller," "Bob Adams in the Dreamlanders: Close Circle of Friends," "Dennis Dermody: Season's Greetings, Love John…," and "Rikki Lake: A Hairspray Reunion"); a handful of audio conversations between Waters and Devine; and a theatrical trailer for the film.
Upbeat and infectious, Hairspray is easily John Waters most accessible film, and one of only two that doesn't carry an R, NC-17, or X rating. An easy recommendation, especially for fans of the Broadway show.
Good (mostly) clean fun!
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