By Michael Sragow
Sun Movie Critic
July 20, 2007
Tracy may live in an East Baltimore rowhouse, but her songs expose a gaudy-yet-wholesome, split-level pop psyche that helps the filmmakers maintain the verve of John Waters' 1988 comedy and provides this adaptation of the 2002 Broadway musical version with an effervescence all its own. In the scintillating Marc Shaiman-Scott Wittman score, Tracy is as self-aware as she is gung-ho about romance, idealism and rock 'n' roll. It's no surprise that she helps integrate The Corny Collins Show, Baltimore's homegrown American Bandstand (based on the real The Buddy Deane Show), two years before the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The movie's director-choreographer, Adam Shankman, lets Tracy's jubilation as well as her conscience be his guide. He puts a new-millennial zing behind exact re-creations of delirious period dances like the Mashed Potato. In effect, he himself does the Hully Gully over the pot-holed cityscape of the modern movie musical with a zest that gets audiences bouncing in their seats.
He allows you to see city life the way a giddy jitterbugger like Tracy would, as a found-art spectacle of funk. While she's bopping around Baltimore, the matrons, drunks and working stiffs don't dance, but the timing of Shankman's stagecraft and editing provides them and even the rats in the street with shake, rattle and roll. As the movie goes on, it makes perfect sense that a black girls group called the Dynamites sings and sways from still pictures on a bench or wall poster.
Shankman puts a feel-great spin on Waters' drolleries without losing their earthiness. When Blonsky's Tracy fashions a bridal headpiece and train out of toilet paper, this movie's heroine shows that even if she's the third-generation Tracy, she still has the right spunk.
In its entirety, Hairspray has the funny tilt that only a director-choreographer like Shankman can give to a movie. Even the adult characters announce themselves like The Corny Collins Show council kids lining up before the camera. There's Edna (John Travolta), Tracy's homebody mom, a self-conscious fattie who gets a dose of pure delight that makes her a full figure of feminine, feminist pride. Wilbur (Christopher Walken), Tracy's dad, the comedy-shop owner who proves the valor of unwavering marital and paternal love and puts the whoopee back into the whoopee cushion. And Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer), so blond, menacing and racist that she's like an albino vampire, though she's really just the station manager determined to see her daughter, Amber (Brittany Snow), crowned Miss Teenage Hairspray of 1962.
The movie finds its pair of farcical Shakeapearean lovers in Penny (Amanda Bynes), Tracy's gawky and jubilant best friend, and Seaweed (Elijah Kelley), the lithe, electric fellow who introduces Tracy to the bliss of black dance. Penny is terminally swoony, Seaweed prematurely cocksure. Together they're comic nitro - and sexy, too.
And then there's Corny Collins himself, the master of the revels, who's both ultra-polished and instinctive. He's got the energy and gumption to seize his main chance as well as a nose for the Next Big Thing, even if means confronting controversy for breaking color barriers. As Corny, James Marsden steals scenes so swiftly, subtly and deftly that he doesn't leave even a partial fingerprint - he emerges with an ever-glow smile full of deviltry and leaves you wondering how he pulled off his grand larceny. He dances with coiled-spring energy, and he's uncanny in his mischievous line readings, especially when he says he's seeking a replacement for a council girl who will be gone for nine months - he wants someone who's just as high-spirited but maybe not as "freewheeling."
Whenever Tracy's fearless zig-zag motion propels her into places where everyone rocks out in the same spirit, including the high-school detention room and the record shop of Baltimore's Queen of Soul, Motormouth Maybelle (the warm, expansive Queen Latifah), the result is an openhearted group delirium: the kind that makes everyone want to get crazy. As a choreographer, Shankman actually shows you The Corny Collins Show's "Negro Day" (the previous versions of Hairspray only referred to this fact-inspired occasion), and when a rope separates the black and white dancers at a hop, you see at a glance where physical and spiritual freedom lie. (Waters writes that even black singing stars could only lip-sync their R&B hits "but never dance with whites or with each other" during regular events or TV episodes.)
Shankman's white dancers exploit the fun in the wind-up toy physicality of the Pony or the group frolic of the Madison. And the strength of his cast, as singers and dancers as well as actors, permits Shankman to bring diverse dance modes into the movie, from the high-style night-club narcissism of Velma's reverie over her rule as "Miss Baltimore Crabs" to the shabby-elegant partnering up of Edna and Wilbur in "You're Timeless to Me" (which includes forays into Astaire-and-Rogers and tango) and the show-stopping chorus line that ends "Welcome to the 60's."
Blonsky's Tracy is the undeniable center of the movie, and her radiating energy infects everyone with a common hum of undiluted delight. Pfeiffer invests Velma's villainy with cold exultation: she's uproarious and delicious when she says something shriveling and then waits for an extra second to see if her victim has enough chutzpah to strike back.
Travolta funnels more delight into Edna as the movie goes along, and she grows sure of Wilbur's love and of her daughter Tracy's good instincts. (You always want more of the inimitable Walken, who plays Wilbur as unwavering if not unflappable.) Travolta's essential tenderness has rarely found a more inviting form than as Edna. He gives Edna a Baltimore accent just odd and exaggerated enough to be funny. It fits a character who has stayed at home and made it through life on a sense of duty and the fading pleasures she grew up with. When Tracy persuades Edna to get out in the street and face the new music, Travolta kicks up his heels big-time.
He and Blonsky harmonize with a super-sized sweetness. Travolta's beyond-drag drag adds a timeless touch to a period piece that boasts melody, rhythm and a cotton-candy post-modernism that goes down with an easy tickle. Hairspray captures a moment in pop-culture history when what felt good to millions of teens was good. It reminds us that the pleasure principle could really be principled.
>>>Hairspray (New Line Cinema) Starring John Travolta, Nikki Blonsky, Christopher Walken, Zac Efron, Michelle Pfeiffer, Amanda Bynes, James Marsden. Directed by Adam Shankman. Rated PG. Time 107 minutes.
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