In the past few years there has been an explosion of movie musicals, ranging from the racy (Chicago) to the surreal (Across the Universe). But of all of these films, Hairspray emerges as the only one with heart and soul.
Underneath the veneer of toe-tapping songs, vibrant vintage costumes and the novelty of John Travolta in drag, Hairspray aims to show us that age, size and skin color are trivial issues that have no business keeping us apart.
Directed by choreographer Adam Shankman (The Wedding Planner), the film revolves around “pleasantly plump” teenager Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky) and her quest to become a dancer on The Corny Collins Show in 1960s Baltimore.
Tracy faces many challenges, including the disapproval of her mother Edna Turnblad (John Travolta) and the scheming nastiness of resident dance-show queen Amber von Tussle (Brittany Snow of John Tucker Must Die) and her mother Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer).
Tracy’s dynamite dancing skills impress Corny Collins (James Marsden of X-Men) and land her a spot on the show.
Before long, Tracy becomes a television sensation and wins the adoration of both the residents of Baltimore and of Amber’s on-screen sweetheart, Link Larkin (Zac Efron of High School Musical).
If this were any other typical musical, the plot would end here. Instead, Hairspray tackles the issue of racial segregation. After getting stuck in detention, Tracy befriends a black dancer named Seaweed (Elijah Kelley of Take the Lead) and Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah), the host of Negro Day, a show that airs only once a month. Tracy thinks that The Corny Collins Show should no longer be segregated, and her radical views land her in legal trouble — just in time to threaten her participation in the Miss Teenage Hairspray competition.
Hairspray truly has an all-star cast. Most prominent is screen musical veteran Travolta, who is a marvel to behold as he dances and sings in drag while wearing a 30-pound fat suit. Travolta makes Edna both endearing and entertaining as she struggles to overcome low self-esteem and accept her daughter’s chosen path.
While most of the cast are seasoned veterans, it’s newcomer Nikki Blonsky who truly shines in her role. Blonsky really carries the film while exuding charm and sincerity. Her performance allows us to look past Tracy’s size and straight to the enormous heart that lies beneath.
Despite the A-list cast, not all of the performances are exactly stellar. Zac Efron as love interest Link Larkin is given little more to do than stand around and look pretty, while Brittany Snow’s Amber comes off as more of a constipated Barbie doll than Tracy’s arch nemesis.
Hairspray is at its most entertaining during the film’s various musical numbers. Shankman, who also choreographed the film, makes the most of each scene. He combines historic dance styles like the “twist” and the “mashed potato” with modern movements to create a style that is both intricate and fun to watch.
Songs like “Welcome to the ’60s” allow for glitz and glam as Travolta and Blonsky dance around in matching pink sequined outfits, while the heartfelt “I Know Where I’ve Been” sung by Queen Latifah, reminds the audience of the underlying message of racial equality. The most impressive number is the finale “You Can’t Stop the Beat” in which the entire cast lets loose in a 20-minute extravaganza of singing, dancing and boundless energy.
The only place where Hairspray falters is in its length. At a runtime of almost two hours, the film can be a little overwhelming. Song and dance numbers fly onscreen at a rapid pace, and for the casual musical lover it might feel like too much is happening at once. It is hard to even take a breath before the next energetic number comes at you.
While some might not connect with the vibrant outpouring of theatrical energy that the film has to offer, it is hard to deny that it both entertains and enlightens. Hairspray is a film with an enormous heart, and thanks to Aqua Net, even bigger hair.