Eclaire Fare

Enjoying Pop Culture, One Bite at a Time

Hairspray: A Hyperactive Musical September 9, 2008

I recently watched the latest version of the movie musical Hairspray, which was a remake of the original 1988 version written and directed by John Waters. I’ve seen bits and pieces of that version, starring Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad, but not enough to say which one is better.

One thing I can say is that the 2007 version, directed and choreographed by Adam Shankman, is a lot of fun. I don’t know how anyone could watch this movie and not smile. I especially enjoyed the first 30 minutes of the movie as we got to know the characters through a series of clever, cute songs, my favorites of which were “Good Morning, Baltimore” and “Ladies’ Choice.” I loved the constant references to hairspray, particularly the giant cans of it on the Corny Collins Show set and the commercials they would produce about it. I also was amazed by the all-star cast, most notably:

  • Nikki Blonsky – Her enthusiasm as Tracy Turnblad was contagious. She was perfect for the part of a “pleasant plump teenager” on a mission to teach Baltimore a social lesson. Her portrayal turned what could have been a super cheesy role into a fun, entertaining one. I loved how she was fully invested in the dancing, whether while in detention with the “negroes” or while making a splash on the Corny Collins Show.
  • James Mardsen – Speaking of Corny Collins, how great was it to see the very attractive Mardsen in such a charming role? I know him best from his work in the X-Men movies, where I couldn’t even see his nice eyes, so I was thrilled to see him, hear him sing, and watch him dance in this movie. He played a completely likable character, which I hear isn’t always the case for him (see The Notebook, for example).
  • Queen Latifah – It’s strange for me to see her playing the role of a mother to teenage children, since I still think of her as being in her 30s. Wait, she actually is still in her 30s, so she was playing older than her age. That makes me feel better. Regardless of whether or not she was age appropriate, she made the most of her character, Motormouth Maybelle.
  • Michelle Pfeiffer – This actress hasn’t been in too many movies this decade, so it was nice to see her again. She was great in the role of Velma Von Tussle, crazed stage mom to Amber Von Tussle (played by Brittney Snow). She created just the right balance of sultriness, self-centeredness, and misplaced ambition. Her character was very reminiscent of another crazy stage mom – Gladys Leeman, played by Kirstie Alley in Drop Dead Gorgeous. Both go to great lengths to help their daughters be winners, but in the end both fail miserably.
  • Amanda Bynes – I’ve never really paid much attention to this actress, but I really enjoyed watching her as Penny Pingleton, Tracy’s sheltered, yet apparently passionate friend.

Now to the things I didn’t like:

  • Some of the actors, or at least the characters they played – I wasn’t impressed by Zac Efron. I guess I’m too old to “get” what all the fuss is about. He was fine for the part, but it wasn’t a stand-out performance. Christopher Walken’s talents were also mostly wasted in the dull, jokester character Wilbur Turnblad. My guess is that Jerry Stiller, who played Wilbur in the 1988 version, was better-suited for this role. Incidentally, Stiller made a cameo in this version as a plus-sized clothing store owner. Ricki Lake also appeared briefly as a talent scout. One final role that didn’t wow me was Brittany Snow as the reigning Miss Teenage Hairspray. Her character didn’t require her to do much more than look annoyed whenever she wasn’t getting screen time on the Corny Collins Show, so it’s difficult to judge her acting.
  • John Travolta was SCARY as Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s mother. I understand that every other version of this musical also has a man playing the part, but seeing Travolta in a fat suit and makeup was just wrong. I found it completely distracting. Needless to say, any scene he was in was among my least favorite. The worst of all was the scene where Walken and Travolta danced on the rooftop singing “You’re Timeless To Me.” Whatever.
  • The second half of the movie dragged and got a little bogged down in the “after school special” style social message. It was a nice message about racial integration and standing up for what is right, but it took away from some of the fun that the first part of the movie exuded.
  • Some of the songs were a bit too hyperactive – High energy is usually a good characteristic for a musical to have, but “frantic” and “hyper” are words I would use to describe Hairspray. That is going overboard a bit. On the pivotal group song and dance, “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” is seemed like the music got faster and faster, out of control, and overbearing. I remember feeling that way when the finalists on So You Think You Can Dance performed to that song. Frankly, it was annoying then and still is now. Had they slowed down the tempo and turned down the volume just a bit, I would have had a more positive reaction. Louder and faster doesn’t always translate to better.

So is this a movie worth watching? Yes, I think so. Especially if you answer “yes” to the following questions:

  • Do you enjoy musicals?
  • Do you like to see the little guy (or in this case, the big girl) have his (her) moment in the spotlight?
  • Do you like movies that put a smile on your face?

I’m looking forward to watching Mamma Mia (the movie version that was released this summer) when it comes out on video. I’d imagine it’s more feel good fun.

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