After nearly a decade and a half long hiatus, the early 2000’s marked a colossal return of the movie musical genera. Not only were theatrical musicals making money again, and receiving critical acclaim, but they were suddenly sweeping the Academy Awards, just like back in the Golden Age of Hollywood.
We were also seeing a number of hit Broadway plays make the transition to the silver screen ... although with admittedly mixed results. Despite being a dynamite decade for movie musicals, there was always a lesser one for every quality hit. The 2007 comedy musical titled “Hairspray” had all the potential to be one of the lesser, bottom barrel offerings of its time ... and yet, with a gifted director, a firmly realized tone, a delightful ensemble cast, and it just hit the mark. “Hairspray” was one of the biggest breakout Summer movies of 2007, was a commercial success, one of the highest grossing musicals, and is fondly looked back on as one of the best movie musicals of the decade. At the time, I was just getting out of High-School, and I was neck-deep in both drama clubs and stage plays. So, this film was mandatory for me to check out. I remember liking it to the point where it surpassed my expectations, although I had no real desire to watch it a second time either. Well … I blinked, and the time passed. I can’t believe it’s already been ten years sense this movie first premiered, but I’m genuinely excited to give this one a second watch. Will it be even better then I remember, or just a pleasant diversion for its time … let’s find out.
The year is 1962, and 16-year-old heavyset High School Student Tracy Turnblad is obsessed with The Corny Collins Show. Along with her best friend Penny, the two want nothing more then to audition for an opening, and dance the night away on the biggest hit local Teen show. However, if she can fill the open spot, and if she’s lucky enough to get things her way … Tracy really wants nothing more than equal screen time from both the Caucasian and African American dancers. The cruel station manager is none too pleased with her ideals, or her figure, but fortunately for Tracy, the show’s star prodigy named Link can see past her weight. He see’s the charm, charisma she brings to her dancing … and although he’s afraid to admit it, shares her ideals. If Tracy can just win the blessing of her parent’s, and make a good impression on her co-stars, maybe she can change the show around for the better. I’ll be honest, as far as teen musicals go … this is absolutely one of the best. That’s not to say it’s one of my absolute favorites, as it’s not quiet on the same high-bar of “West Side Story”, but it’s certainly not the disposable piece of fluff I originally wrote it off as.
The first thing this movie has going for it is an infectiously lovable cast, with each talent bringing a distinct charm and appeal to the film.
Nikki Blonsky had the breakout role of a life-time as Tracy Turnblad, and boy howdy … did she ever hit it out of the park. Obviously, the role called for someone overweight, but the spirit, the charm, the innocents, and the passion she brought to this performance can’t be undermined. Ever sense I saw this performance, I wanted to see her in roles that didn’t require someone overweight, because she really has the gift and the talent. Michelle Pfeiffer likewise delivers a delightfully wicked performance as the up-tight station manager Velma, and her song number “Miss Baltimore Crabs” is one of the most enjoyable villain numbers the genera has to offer. Zac Efron was just coming off the high of his TV success, and was just making his transition into theatrical productions, so no doubt he was just a big, juicy peace of bait for role of love interest Link. Elijah Kelley however, is the supporting young talent who I felt really shined on screen, and was chalk full of both style and charisma. Brittany Snow was a great choice to play Tracy’s TV rival Amber, but I feel she was the one talent who got swallowed up by the larger than life performances of her fellow cast members. Again, she fits the role, but I wish she had more scenes to really chew the scenery, or at the very least leave more of a memorable impression. No comment needed for Queen Latifah, as she shines in just about every-thing she sings and appears in.
I also have to give credit to James Marsden’s charismatic portrayal of the host Corny Collins. While James Marsden has an unfortunate reputation for playing second banana to other stars in movies, he really is a likable talent, and even in this supporting role, he really displays a lot of charm. This role was originally meant for his fellow “X-Men” co-star Hugh Jackman, making this a rare case in which Cyclops beat-out Wolverine for once. Amanda Bynes plays Tracy’s best friend Penny, and this was one of her very last movie roles before stepping away from acting. I must admit, after re-watching this film, I suddenly realized I genuinely missed seeing her in movies. Amanda Bynes was one of those young decade talents I grew-up watching in a number of movies, TV shows, and she was a warmly recognizable presence who always added that extra layer of charm and delight to the experience. This movie is no exception, as Amanda Bynes makes for a lovable best friend, and naturally lights up the screen with her signature cute personality.
Before I talk about the songs, lets first look at “Hairspray” as a comedy.
Personally, I found myself smiling and lightly chuckling at the film, rather than any big knee-slappers, but sometimes that’s okay. The films comedic nature serves more to giving it’s 1960’s setting a personality all it’s own, lending to cartoony visuals, and imagery that wouldn’t have worked in a musical that felt grounded. There are still some quirky highlights, and the cast can be quite funny. John Travolta as Tracy’s mother is an inspired choice, and he infuses the film with a lot of amusement. Travolta is one of those talents who can either be on top of the world in one movie, or facing rock bottom in another, and I’m happy to say that this movie put John Travolta back on the high-ground. Aside from being genuinely charismatic, he actually has terrific chemistry with Nikki Blonsky … to the point where I’m genuinely convinced their mother and doubter. The only other larger then life screen presence who could match Travolta is Christopher Walken as the father. He’s one of the most unique talents out there, as his acting always feels out of this world, and you just can’t take your eyes off him. There’s an especially fun scene with him giving a tour of his shop to the nasty station manager, and being a superhero fan … I just loved seeing this little “Batman Returns” cast reunion between Michelle Pfeiffer and Christopher Walken. He’s also had experience as a dancer, which cares over into this film wonderfully. While the song “Timeless to me” is nothing too memorable on it’s own, it’s the sequence of him dancing with his John Travolta wife that makes for such an amusingly awkward highlight in the film. Yet, I find the funniest talent of the whole movie to be Allison Janney as Penney’s overly controlling and strict mother. I don’t know what it is about this character performance, but she just cracks me up every time she’s on screen … “You just wait till your father gets out of prison young lady”.
How are the songs, as those are what make or break a musical? While certainly not one of the all-time great song selections, just about every musical number fills me with energy, and just puts me in a good mood.
Right from the opening “Good Morning Baltimore”, the personality of this musical just wins me over, and I feel hooked. I distinctly remember back in my teen-drama-class days, all the girls in my group loved singing “I Can Hear the Bells”, and it’s become something of a nostalgic number for me. Other songs like “Ladies Choice” and “Welcome to the 60’s” continue to carry the films upbeat style and mood. Surprisingly, it’s whenever the musical tries to go for either a romantic or emotional song that I find myself getting board, and those are typically the songs I look forward to in musicals. That’s not to say that either “I Know Where I’ve Been” or “Without Love” are bad in of themselves, there just not highlights that I look forward to. Ironically, I find the most disposable song to be “It’s Hairspray”, which is the song the play is named after. However, the big breakout song that can be viewed as the real theme is “You Can’t Stop the Beat”, which is easily my favorite number of the whole musical. This song is so catchy, and so infectiously cheerful, that even though I haven’t watched this movie in a decade, this song continued to stick with me for these years.
The film also looks great, with colorful set designs, and even though the whole 60’s look feels more like a back-lot replication, it still feels alive in its own fluffy way.
However, despite the film’s cheerful nature and upbeat tone, it’s still not ashamed to address racial, social and general themes of indifference. While timeless for any generation, it’s something that’s really needed now. It also gives the film a welcome layer of substance, and keeps it just a head above being disposable entertainment. If I had any real reservations with the movie, it would be in its final act. While everything plays out the way you’d expect, it also feels rushed, almost like I’m missing important character bonding moments in favor of more entertaining musical numbers. Tracy at one point is accused of assaulting an officer, goes on the run, gets caught by her best friend’s nasty mother (who amusingly locks her in a nuclear fall-out shelter that’s been converted into a guest room), then both Tracy and her friend are immediately rescued, and a plan is quickly put into motion to get Tracy back on the show … and it all feels like it’s running on fast-forward. The climax is at least a good one, as all the characters get involved, the dancing is great, and I liked that the one cute African American girl won the crown as opposed to our female lead, as that would have been a pinch too predictable.
In the end, even if I don’t call “Hairspray” one of my absolute favorite musicals, it’s still hard not to like and have a fun time with. It’s bursting with energy, and it’s one of those movies that just invites you to have a good time. The themes and messages are also thoughtful enough to anchor the upbeat songs, which is always welcome. Just as long as you go in with a mind set for some goofy fun, and catchy songs … this musical will give you your fix, and leave you feeling all warm and smiling. I’m happy to say it’s held up over the years, it’s absolutely on the high ground of Teen Musicals, and I genuinely hope more people rediscover this one, because I found this a very satisfying experience to give a second chance.
I give the 2007 musical “Hairspray” … 4 stars out of 5.