‘Hairspray’ Makes Refreshing Big-Screen Musical

September 14, 2007

What if I told you that John Travolta’s latest role has him playing an overweight mother to a darling adolescent girl whose main interest in life is to dance in an “integrated” TV dance show?

“Hairspray,” Hollywood’s latest musical offering, is a refreshing surprise in many ways. In the first scene of the movie, Tracy Turnblad, a happy, cheery, adolescent girl sings her way to school, dreaming of being on the “The Corny Collins Show.” Nikki Blonsky’s performance as Tracy is delightful and genuine; she lights up the screen every time you hear her sing or see her dance. You could say she was made for the part.

Hardly the same can be said for Travolta, yet he plays his part so unequivocally that it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

Quite recognizable behind all the “fat”makeup, Travolta plays a shut-in mom who prohibits Tracy from watching TV and tries to prepare her to inherit the family’s ironing business. Despite projecting her own failures onto Tracy, Edna Turnblad loves her daughter very much, and this relationship is at the core of the story.

Tracy’s light-hearted father, played by Christopher Walken, works downstairs living his dream as the owner of the “Hardy-Har Hut,” a specialty store selling masks, pranks and magic tricks.

It’s not unusual for a John Waters film to have a social agenda, and this remake based on the Broadway musical – in turn based on the 1988 cult film written and directed by Waters – is no exception.

Everything goes great for Tracy until she decides to cut class to go audition for the show. She gets rejected, and, returning to school, receives detention. Here, a whole new world opens up to her: that of the black community. Conveniently enough, most kids in detention are black. They dance and sing all the way through, with natural talent that would make any TV dancer jealous. The Corny Collins Show has its monthly “Negro Day,” and Tracy asks herself, “Why can’t every day be Negro Day?” Thus a chain of events unfolds that will change Tracy and her family forever.

“Hairspray” is directed and choreographed by Adam Shankman, director of “The Pacifier” and “Cheaper by the Dozen 2.” It turns out he has a more renowned career as a choreographer than as a director. This makes me wonder what other directors haven’t found their calling.

Maybe soon we’ll see David Fincher directing comedies, or the Farrelly Brothers heading off to Broadway to produce their first musical. Who knows? Until then, we’ll keep getting great movies like this one (and others not so great) as Hollywood keeps experimenting to keep business flourishing.

 

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