Appellate Judge Tom Becker is melodic and hummable, but you can't dance to him.
Our reviews of Hairspray (1988) (published May 22nd, 2001), Hairspray (1988) (Blu-ray) (published March 19th, 2014), Hairspray (2007) (Blu-ray) (published November 20th, 2007), and Very Crudely Yours: The John Waters Collection (published August 22nd, 2005) are also available.
"I'm all for integration. It's the new frontier!"
"Not in Baltimore it isn't."
No one who was paying attention should have been surprised by the ascent of John Waters. His early films were tacky, trashy, grotesque, and deviant, as were the members of his "rep company," the Dreamland Players. Given that pedigree, the only unexpected aspect of his leap from Godfather of Gross to Favorite Uncle of a big Broadway musical is that it took so long.
Waters' films were always about outcasts and dreams. It could be argued that if one's dream is, say, to be the filthiest person in the world, and one is willing to consume dog feces to achieve that dream, then one might guess that such a person is courting outcastdom, but no matter. The outcasts in his 1988 film Hairspray were marked by their race and by their weight, and their triumphs came on the dance floor, not the gutter. Hairspray was Waters' first PG-rated film and his first real mainstream success.
While Hairspray was not a musical, it was all about music and dancing, and offered a positive, family-friendly message about tolerance. It was turned into a Broadway musical in 2002; the show picked up a bunch of Tony Awards and five years later, is still going strong.
So Hairspray begat Hairspray, which begat Hairspray, an all-star Hollywood musical that turned out to be one of the happiest surprises of the summer of 2007. All this now begets a super DVD release from New Line.
Facts of the Case
It's 1962 Baltimore, and every day at 4 p.m., all the kids tune in to The Corny Collins Show to hear the latest music and see the hottest dance moves from "The Nicest Kids in Town," a bunch of gleaming, good-looking white teens—except the last Tuesday of the month, which is Negro Day, hosted by Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah, Chicago).
White, plump, and energetic high schooler Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) dreams of dancing on the show, but when she auditions, she is ridiculed and rejected by the villainous Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer, The Fabulous Baker Boys), whose daughter, Amber (Brittany Snow, John Tucker Must Die) is the star and three-years-running Miss Teenage Hairspray.
At school, Tracy gets sent to detention, where she impresses the black kids (there are no other white kids there) with her moves. When Corny Collins sees her use those same moves at a "hop," he signs her up, extra poundage be damned.
Soon, our chunky champion is the toast of Baltimore, and Tracy and her parents—the rotund Edna (John Travolta, Face/Off), who takes in laundry, and Wilbur (Christopher Walken, Catch Me If You Can), who owns a novelties store—are basking in their newfound fame.
But something's missing for Tracy. She doesn't like that the white kids and the black kids have to have separate shows. She thinks the show should be integrated, and she's not alone. Only problem is, Baltimore doesn't seem ready for an integrated TV dance party.
Of course, no one thought Baltimore would be ready for a plus-size dancing queen. So Tracy sets out to get Baltimore to take a two-step forward on race relations.
Hairspray is a big, bright, old-fashioned, fun musical. Even though it deals with a serious subject, it rarely takes itself too seriously. Like the 1988 original, it presents bigotry and segregation as not just evil but absurd. Tracy is not so much radicalized as common-sensitized. She is incensed that blacks are relegated to Negro Day not only because it's unjust, but because it's ridiculous. It doesn't make sense to her.
Of course, Tracy's world is a fairly simple one, filled with stucco and pastels and monochrome TV dreams. Her lower-middle-class-Kennedy-era Baltimore neighborhood is a happy place where the winos and flashers wish her well on her way to school, and Mr. Pinky's Hefty Hideaway offers spangly outfits for ladies with healthy appetites. Her soundtrack has an infectious, Brill Building-style beat, and if you listen closely, you can hear the teenaged echoes of Leslie Gore, the Ronettes, and Neil Sedaka, with a little Elvis and a little Motown thrown in for good measure.
Nikki Blonsky hooks you with her opening number, "Good Morning, Baltimore," and never lets you loose. Her arrival at school on the top of a garbage truck is a star-making moment. The actress was, quite literally, plucked from obscurity to play Tracy, and she gives a great debut performance. Charismatic and self-assured, you don't doubt for a second that this chubby dynamo could win the hearts of most of Baltimore as well as hottie nice guy Link Larson (Zac Efron, High School Musical).
There was some controversy surrounding the casting of John Travolta as Edna Turnblad. Divine played Edna in the 1988 film, and Harvey Fierstein played the role on Broadway (and won a Tony Award for it). Travolta's Edna would be the first original incarnation of the character essayed by an openly heterosexual man; also, Travolta is a Scientologist, and the Church of Scientology is not noted for its sunny outlook on gay men and lesbians.
Whatever Travolta's personal beliefs might be, he makes a fine Edna Turnblad, sympathetic, funny, and strangely alluring. Travolta plays it straight—no winking for the camera—and is barely recognizable under layers of latex. But the famous Travolta eyes are there, and when Edna sings, it's in Travolta's higher-than-normal '70s teen idol voice.
As Wilbur Turnblad, Christopher Walken reminds us that, in addition to his other prodigious and offbeat talents, he's a fine song-and-dance man. Check out his turn in Pennies From Heaven if you need further proof. Michelle Pfeiffer has a blast being evil as the vain and vicious Velma. Queen Latifah keeps things grounded as Motormouth Maybelle and has the only "serious" song in the film, the powerful "I Know Where I've Been."
But this is the kids' show, and Blonsky gets great support from her young co-stars, particularly Efron, Amanda Bynes (What a Girl Wants) as her awkward best friend, Penny Pingleton, and the astonishing Elijah Kelley (Take the Lead) as Seaweed, the nominal leader of the black kids and Maybelle's son.
Adam Shankman directs with style, irreverence, and a classic movie musical sensibility, with lively dance numbers set against kitschy backgrounds. The catchy score mixes juke box with piano bar with highly hummable results.
New Line releases this big, bright, old-fashioned, fun musical with a big, bright, old-fashioned, fun double disc.
The transfer here is phenomenal, crisp and clear, with colors that pop and lots of excellent detail. There are three audio options, with an especially dynamic Dolby Digital 5.1 track.
We get two audio commentaries, one featuring Shankman and Blonsky, the other with producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. The commentaries are scene-specific and anecdote heavy, and there is very little overlap.
"Hairspray Extensions" examines the process that went into creating the dance numbers. Each number is represented, and there is an option to watch the finished product from the film. "Step by Step: The Dances of Hairspray" gives us two of the assistant choreographers teaching the steps to the dancers, and you can learn them, too! Another feature allows us to "Jump to a Song" and offers a sing-along option.
The extras on disc two are both fun and meaty. "The Roots of Hairspray" is an umbrella title for three featurettes. "The Buddy Deane Show" takes a look at the dance-party program from the early '60s that inspired Waters and features some of the now-grown "Nicest Kids" who appeared on the show. "John Waters' Hairspray" documents the making of the 1988 film and includes interviews with Waters, Ricki Lake, and others involved with the film. "Hairspray on Broadway" examines the evolution of the stage production. The only thing missing from this piece is some input from Harvey Fierstein.
"You Can't Stop the Beat: The Long Journey of Hairspray" is a feature-length documentary that explores all aspects of the production (and is broken into individually accessible chapters). This is really a terrific extra. Far more informative than the standard "making-of" featurette, it gives us virtually every prominent member of the cast and production team offering stories, insights, and reflections.
There are five deleted or altered scenes with optional commentary from Shankman and Blonsky. These scenes are actually quite good and include one of Blonsky's numbers, "I Can't Wait," which was dropped from the film. The original trailer for Hairspray and previews for other New Line releases round out the set.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I'm sure I could quibble if I put my mind to it, but why? While this Hairspray is not as edgy (or occasionally icky) as the Waters original, it's a great time filled with heart, soul, and wit.
When I read that Travolta had been signed to play Edna Turnblad, I didn't think Scientology; I thought, Battlefield Earth, Lucky Numbers, and the other poor-to-mediocre projects that actor has turned out in recent years. I thought we'd get a bloated, self-aggrandizing star turn that would sink this film like a gutted fish.
I was wrong. Travolta gives a graceful, affecting performance in what amounts to a supporting role, and yields the spotlight to the tremendously talented Blonsky.
Hairspray is a wildly entertaining film. The folks at New Line have outdone themselves with this disc.
Good morning, Baltimore! You're not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Commentary by Adam Shankman and Nikki Blonsky
Review content copyright © 2007 Tom Becker; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.