Aside from perhaps Disney films and “the Blues Brothers”, I don’t think I’ve ever watched a musical outside of a classroom setting. Back in grade school, musicals were always the “safe” film to show on days when the teacher just didn’t feel like trying anymore. Indeed, I’ve never seen “West Side Story”, “Grease” or even “the Wizard of Oz” anywhere but from behind a desk, and in regards to the 1988 musical “Hairspray”, I’ve never seen it period. So don’t be expecting any compare-and-contrast in this review.
It’s 1962 and the obese dance-enthusiast Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) has dreams of appearing on the popular afternoon musical television series, the Corny Collins Show. Standing in her way is the stuck-up and ill-tempered Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) who wants to keep the show all skinny and all white. Along the way, Tracy befriends the black students at her school and learns a fresh style of dance which catapults her on the way to stardom. However, when she attempts to take her colored friends with her, Miss Tussle intervenes. Tracy must then fight an uphill battle not only for civil rights, but to prove that anyone can be beautiful regardless of what they look like on the outside.
When the movie started I was sinking deeply into my seat with every frame, battling the urge to wring my own neck for choosing to go see a musical. If the first paragraph of this article didn’t clue you in, musicals just aren’t my bag. However, as the film progressed I was slowly drawn into the experience and found even a musical-loathing Grinch such as myself tapping my toes in my seat. Although they’re not all winners, the songs collected in this film are very fun and memorable with some downright clever lyrics. They’re all very upbeat and up-tempo, particularly the final number at the film’s climax which I found to be the highpoint of the movie.
As far as the cast is concerned, “Hairspray” assembles a pretty respectable flock of talent. Michelle Pfeiffer plays the film’s lead villain, though I found her performance to be a bit on the cheesy side (however, my gut tells me that was the point). Its strange how time flies, it seems like only yesterday Pfeiffer was being called the sexiest woman alive for her performance as Catwoman in “Batman Returns”, and now she’s playing a withered drama queen attempting to recapture her glory days by living vicariously through her daughter. I guess time catches up with all of us. There’s also Queen Latifa whom we all know is a phenomenally talented singer. She provides a number of songs, most of which are the best. There’s also the ever-enjoyable Christopher Walken whom you just can’t get enough of. I’ve seen the man dance before but never heard him sing, and much to my surprise, he’s actually very good. And finally, in what’s probably the most bizarre casting choice in the movie, Tracy’s overweight mother is played by John Travolta. As if taking him seriously as a villain in “the Punisher” wasn’t hard enough, now whenever I rewatch that movie all I’m gonna see is him in drag doing the tango with an amorous Christopher Walken. Still, all jokes aside, he really sells the role and after a while you actually forget he’s not a she at all.
But while the established cast is worth the price of admission, the newcomers to the scene really take the spotlight. Zac Efron plays Link Larkin, the crooner that makes all the ladies swoon. Some excellent moves and vocal talent on his part. Elijah Kelley plays Seaweed, the son of Queen Latifa’s character who teaches Tracy a new set of moves. An impressive performance on his part. And finally you’ve got Nikki Blonsky in the spotlight as Tracy and she carries the weight of the film on her shoulders without missing a step. I know Hollywood has very exacting standards when it comes to female stars, but I certainly wish her the best in her career. She certainly has more talent than 90% of the anorexic stick figures that clutter the screens.
The predominating message of the film is a very positive one: that looks aren’t as important as what’s inside. Basically, “don’t be superficial” sums the film’s moral up in a fortune cookie statement. A tired lesson, perhaps, but still one that bears repeating. “Hairspray” throws in numerous moments of sexual innuendo and flat-out “naughty” gags which tend to betray its otherwise family-oriented nature. However, I wouldn’t say that any of the dirty jokes come to close to exceeding “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” levels, and that’s a movie which parents cheerfully show to their five year-olds without so much as a second thought. So regardless of the innuendo, I’d say it’s still safe for the kids.
While “Hairspray” isn’t my type of movie I have a feeling most fans of the musical genre will get a kick out of it and so will the kids. Musicals aren’t very common in this day and age, so if you’re dying to see one that isn’t a cartoon then I’d recommend you seek this film out.