The movie of the Broadway show of the movie 'Ah, the circle of life! Once upon a time little John Waters was condemned to the cult midnight movie circuit for cheapo bad taste extravaganzas like Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos, and Desperate Living. Gradually, though, something shifted. It wasn't so much that Waters sold out, more that the mainstream came to meet him halfway, which is more or less what transpired when he wrote and directed the original version of Hairspray in 1988.
A nostalgic, tongue in cheek tribute to the subversive art of shaking your tail-feather in Waters' native Baltimore, circa 1962, Hairspray is the story of footloose working class teen Tracy Turnblad. Tracy lives for The Corny Collins Show, a live cable TV show, which showcases the latest rhythm and blues moves with its troupe of Baltimore's nicest kids. One day she gets her chance to audition for the show, but a big girl like Tracy doesn't fit the profile any more than the 'negroes' who it is feared may corrupt the white children. Rallying the kids, Tracy does her bit to redefine the face of pop culture.
Although Waters' movie wasn't strictly a musical (in as much as all the singing and dancing is naturalistic), it felt like one. The story's triumph-of-the-underdog structure is the stuff of 42nd Street legend, and scarcely ten minutes go by without another tune from Gene Pitney, The Five Du-Tones, or Jerry Dallman and the Knightcaps.
The new movie replaces these golden oldies with Marc Shaiman's Broadway kitsch; and much as I miss The Madison, he's definitely got the bubblegum pop sound just so (better, in my opinion, than the similar Dreamworks pastiches).
At first blush, opening number 'Good Morning Baltimore' sounds like a typically hokey all-American show-tune. But anyone who knows Baltimore knows better. And then there's that lyric about 'the flasher who lives next door/The bum on his barroom stool/They wish me luck on the way to school'. John Waters even has a blink-and-you-miss-him cameo as the flasher. It's then that you know everything is going to be all right.
Admittedly, it takes a little while to get used to John Travolta in a house-dress and a fat suit as Tracy's mom, Edna (the role played by Waters' muse Devine). But Queen Latifah is a fair swap for Ruth Brown as Motormouth Mabel, Michelle Pfeiffer is probably an improvement on Debbie Harry as the arch villain Velma von Tussle, and newcomer Nikki Blonsky blows away the memory of Ricki Lake as our Tracy.
Director Adam Shankman has some cheesy movies to his credit (The Wedding Planner; Cheaper by the Dozen 2) but he started out as a dancer and choreographer. He doesn't over-do the cutting on the music numbers and lets us see the dancers - something Baz Luhrmann might have remembered when he edited Moulin Rouge.
Unlike most recent movie musicals, this one is unpretentious and not afraid to seem silly. Consequently it's a lot more fun. With its satirical digs at moral zealots, racists and hypocrites, it's also a perversely innocent and optimistic film. You would think that showbiz had definitively banished racial segregation and body fascism, but if Nikki Blonsky wants a movie career she'll be expected to transform her shape, and if the talented Elijah Kelley ('Seaweed') has a future, you can bet most of his movies will be aimed primarily at the black box-office.
All the more reason, then, to celebrate this bright and funny rainbow of a musical, the best of its kind in a long, long time.
Titles related to this article