A peek at 'Hairspray' suggests a summer smash

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON--Energy-plus: That's what Hairspray should offer moviegoers when it opens July 27.

To judge from a 17-minute trailer New Line Cinema unspooled to Baltimore and Washington movie critics and entertainment writers yesterday, the filmmakers have succeeded in making a V-8 musical-comedy engine hit on all cylinders.

But they haven't lost the freshness, sass and charm of an exuberant early-'60s period piece that views rock and civil rights as the key ingredients of the American Teenage Revolution that turned popular culture into youth culture.

New Line knows Hairspray could be a potential global smash for a film company that hasn't had one since The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The studio presented a slightly longer version of this trailer to the ShoWest convention in Las Vegas last month. That caused the movie-industry weekly Variety to note, "There is a growing sense that Hairspray could be a summer surprise."

Hairspray fans skeptical of stunt casting should relax. John Travolta, as formidable Baltimore mom Edna Turnblad, looks like an endearing balloon sculpture. He's acting out an expansive vision of a maternal force with an enormous appetite, and everything he says sounds sweet or funny.

And he and the movie's out-of-nowhere find, Nikki Blonsky, as Edna's dancing fool of a daughter, Tracy, match up splendidly in face and spirit, not just their billowing forms. Blonsky boasts the flashing-eyed zest and bone-deep ebullience that can't be faked. When these two dance together they deliver that extra kick you get from seeing graceful heavyweights trip the light fantastic.

They and the filmmakers and the rest of the cast have a hard act to follow. John Waters' 1988 original, starring Divine as Edna and Ricki Lake as Tracy, recaptured the spontaneous combustion of teen Baltimoreans in 1962 rocking out to the Madison and the Twist. No director ever did a better job than Waters of making you feel you were watching a talented, energetic group of kids dancing partly for the joy of it and partly for the joy of showing off.

In all three versions of Hairspray, the best of the kids spread new sounds and rhythms to fans of the local TV dance program, The Corny Collins Show (based on real-life Baltimore's The Buddy Deane Show). Tracy's drive to get on that show and then to integrate it provides the story with momentum. Her effort to win her dream boy Link from ice princess Amber Von Tussle provides it with a beating - make that back-beating - heart.

Hewing closely to the 2002 Broadway hit, with its cheeky and infectious score (by lyricist Scott Wittman and lyricist-composer Marc Shaiman), this new movie has to do something similar to Waters' film but different. The show tunes and dance numbers must express the characters' surprising strengths and fabulous foibles and skyrocketing dreams without diluting the funky milieu or puncturing the Kennedy-era atmosphere.

To succeed, any second-generation adaptation must offer intensity and wit to compensate for the inevitable loss in freshness. Credit director and choreographer Adam Shankman for Hairspray's success.

Remember Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl singing "Don't Rain On My Parade" and turning herself into the figurehead of a tugboat in New York Harbor? That happened as a curtain closer right before intermission. But Shankman gives Blonsky a similar huge moment right at the beginning, singing "Good Morning, Baltimore" as she hitches a ride to high school on a pickup truck.

Shankman displays a heady instinct for comic hyperbole in song and dance and moviemaking. His previous directing credits may not inspire confidence - tarnished star comedies like The Wedding Planner, The Pacifier, Cheaper By the Dozen 2 and Bringing Down the House. But Shankman's credits as a choreographer and dance consultant extend from TV's Buffy, the Vampire Slayer to Boogie Nights. The Hair- spray snippets crackle with the confidence a movie musical can deliver when a single filmmaker holds all its elements in the palm of his hand.

Baltimoreans moaned last year at the announcement that the film would be shot in Toronto instead of its birth city. But the filmmakers conjure an aura of an Eastern everycity in early-'60s decline while applying Baltimore details, like Formstone.

And more likely you'll ignore any Baltimore gaffes to ogle the eye-popping party clothes and big hair and, best of all, the big stars who act like they're having a heck of a time.

I left the trailer with my appetite whetted to see more of Christopher Walken as Tracy's go-for-it dad Wilbur, Amanda Bynes as her goofy-gawky best friend Penny, Brittany Snow (of TV's late, lamented American Dreams) as witch-in-training Amber, and Michelle Pfeiffer as Velma Von Tussle, the witch who's training her.

The appeal of High School Musical's Zac Efron (he plays Link) so far eludes me, and there wasn't enough footage in the trailer to even guess at the impact of Allison Janney as Penny's mom. But Queen Latifah bequeaths the film with effortless elan as Motormouth Maybelle, and James Marsden creates a sensational small-city slickness as Corny Collins.

In the X-Men films, Marsden couldn't emerge from Hugh Jackman's shadow. Here, he cuts loose. In fact, from top to bottom, Hairspray could be the least stiff film around.


Because of faulty information provided by a publicity firm, an article on the movie musical Hairspray in the Movies Today section yesterday misstated the film's release date. It is scheduled to open in theaters July 20.The Sun regrets the error.
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