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2006 films

a review by Tom Condon, OP

I remember loving the original John Waters Hairspray film.  While it appealed to mainstream audiences with its nostalgic music and humor, it also had the edge of an independent film. The fact that one of the main characters, Edna Turnblad, was played by the transvestite Divine, was a bit of a shock to mainstream audiences.  Today, five years after the smash hit Broadway musical, no one bats an eye at John Travolta (definitely not a transvestite) as Edna.  After all, Edna has always been played by a man!  It’s just part of the story.  But Travolta?  Surely you must be kidding!  I expected this version of Hairspray to be a disaster.  Then I read the great reviews and decided to see for myself. 

The good news is that the new Hairspray succeeds on its own.  It’s actually better than the stage musical.  And, wisely, it doesn’t try to simply recreate the 1988 movie.  The current Hairspray is certainly a more mainstream entertainment than the original version, but that’s not a bad thing.  Audiences are a lot harder to shock these days!  What this film becomes is a tribute to a Hollywood musical which hasn’t been seen in decades, like those Chubby Checker musicals of 50 years ago in which all the high school kids get out there and twist and shout their troubles away.  Hairspray uses choreography better than any musical since West Side Story.  It has a unique rhythm to it in which the action flows seamlessly from one number to the next, without stopping to catch its breath.  It’s the antithesis of musicals in which everything stops for the “big number,” after which the characters stand around and talk again.  It takes a while for this rhythm to get started, but once it does, the film is on a roll. 

The plot of Hairspray centers on Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky), an overweight Baltimore teenager in the early 1960’s, who lives for a local afternoon TV dance show, “The Corny Collins Show.”  Despite the odds, Tracy becomes a regular dancer on the show, and in no time is a local celebrity.  Tracy’s equally large mother, Edna, is at first horrified, knowing how cruel people can be to those who are different.  Tracy’s nerdy father Wilbur (the great Christopher Walken), who manages a novelty store, supports Tracy, and begins to cash in on her fame, selling her likeness in the store.

Meanwhile, Tracy always seems to be landing in detention with the African-American students (there’s social commentary for you).  She befriends them, learns their music and dance numbers, and eventually takes it upon herself to integrate “The Corny Collins Show.”  Naturally, she runs into opposition from uptight station manager Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer, as thin as Edna is large).  Through her friendship and love of music, Tracy herself becomes an agent of social change.  After Tracy and friends integrate “Corny Collins,” Baltimore is changed forever.  As the final musical number proclaims, “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”

As I mentioned, it took me a while to warm up to Hairspray.  But, when Tracy, Edna and a host of others take to the streets in the great dance number, “Welcome to the 60’s,” I was hooked.  Another musical highlight is the charming “(You’re) Timeless to Me,” in which Edna and Wilbur, as unlikely a romantic couple as you can imagine, sing and dance amidst the clotheslines in the backyard.

The more I reflect on Hairpsray, the more I understand it as a modern day parable of the reign of God.  Those who have been excluded because of size, looks, and race, are now welcome at the banquet.  In the new “Corny Collins Show,” everyone is welcome to join in the celebration.  The only ones now on the outside are those, like Velma and her daughter Amber, who refuse to join in.  No longer in control, no longer the insiders, they stand alone in their misery while everyone else dances to the beat.   It may not be Flannery O’Connor, but, it’s great stuff nonetheless.

Director Adam Shankman, whose previous films include the undistinguished “The Pacifier” and “Cheaper by the Dozen 2,” deserves a great deal of credit.   Hairspray is a very entertaining film that stands on its own as a testament to a time in which people actually thought that music, dance, and spirit could change the world for the better.  They were right.   

Tom Condon, OP   

...a modern day parable of the reign of God?








The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG -- parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

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