Everything In Its Proper Place

In my experience, a person either loves musicals or detests them. Many find them too surreal (as if anyone breaks into harmonized, choreographed song when the gang fights start). Armed with the knowledge that Hairspray originated as aahem!respectable screenplay, unencumbered by silly, extraneous songs and dance routines, I was skeptical.

For those who (like me) have heard of Hairspray but know little about it, the tale takes place in 1960s Baltimore, where Corny Collins hosts a small-scale local version of American Bandstand. Every afternoon, a select few (white) teens dance their way through the coolest of pop music and new moves. And, just to be polite, once a month there is “Negro Night,” where the dance floor is bisected by color, and the African American kids can strut their stuff as well.

Nikki Blonsky as Tracy in Hairspray

Trouble erupts, though, when Tracy Turnblad, an otherwise shy, plump and bubbly teen whose absolute dream is to make it onto The Corny Collins Show, actually makes it onto the show, threatening the reigning dance princess’s modest charm and well-tended coiffure. When a sabotage scheme cooked up by Amber Von Tussle and her mother, Velma, lands the innocent Tracy in detention (occupied mostly by blacks) Tracy learns that there are more important issues than winning the Miss Teenage Hairspray crown—issues like segregation and racial inequality. After joining forces with Motormouth Maybelle, Tracy turns The Corny Collins Show into a demonstration ground, awakening Baltimore teens to racial integration.

What surprised me most about Hairspray is that, quite frankly, I enjoyed it. The casting, though eclectic, is superb, turning a movie about “standing out” into a balanced, artful ensemble effort. Nikki Blonsky as Tracy bubbles through her role with unfailing optimism—which I found refreshing in the face of the stick-thin actresses who dominate the Hollywood scene. John Travolta also surprised me in his understated drag as Tracy’s mother, Edna. Somehow, Travolta got away without overacting in this one; rather, Edna is just another quirky character in the mix. Queen Latifah puts forth her usual 110% as Maybelle, again without sticking out. And Christopher Walken (as Tracy’s father, Wilbur), an admittedly odd choice for a musical, adds his share of wackinessbut again, disrupting neither the flow nor the unity of the cast as a whole.

Aside from the phenomenal casting, director Adam Shankman pulls the film together in a tightly-wrapped package, and hairsprays it into stark submission. Not a hair, not a word, not a movement is out of place. The choreographed scenes are great fun to watch, and the storyline never flags too much. In all, the film can be interpreted as a commentary on any prejudice: race, religious belief, size and shape, intelligence, education, income—you name it; and Hairspray can somehow relate to the tension between numerous parties.

Hairspray’s director, Adam Shankman, does an excellent job turning this film-turned-Broadway-musical-turned-movie-musical into an enjoyable, clean, slightly political but never preachy tale into a classic portrayal of winning, losing, and speaking out for what you believe.

Hairspray is rated PG for “language, some suggestive content and momentary teen smoking.” That is true, and it’s pretty tame, really. This is definitely a movie you could take your family to see, and not risk too much.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Jenn attended a promotional screening of Hairspray.