Hairspray - Review

Colour, light, energy, a family-friendly message and lots of spontaneous breaking into song -- if you are enjoy any (or all) of these, then you need to see Hairspray. Originally a stage play, the film version is admirably successful in translating the experience of a musical to the big screen. Though its storyline is predictable and often clichéd, Hairspray as a whole shines -- at least in all of its schmaltzy, melodramatic glory.

Set in 1960s Baltimore, it is the story of overweight teenager Traci Turnblad. Traci (Nikki Blonsky) and her best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) live to watch the appropriately monikered “Corny Collins Show”, a daily song-and-dance variety feature. When one of the show regulars becomes pregnant, Traci jumps at the chance to audition as her replacement, only to be rejected because of her weight and eagerness to encourage racial integration. When she returns to class, she is sent to detention for being late. There she meets a group of black kids who teach her how to dance their way. Her new moves catch the attention of Link Larkin (Zac Efron), her classmate who just happens to be the song-and-dance heartthrob on the “Corny Collins Show”. Link sets it up for her to get noticed by Corny Collins himself (played by James Marsden of X-Men fame)—and Traci finds herself “the new girl in town” (yes, there’s a song about it). Her dream-come-true doesn’t last long though, when the show’s bitter producer (Michelle Pfieffer) -- determined to crush Traci’s chances -- cancels Negro Day, thus banning all black musicians from ever appearing on the show. Caught between her principles and her dreams, Traci has to decide what is truly more important and where her loyalties lie.

Like its metaphorical title, Hairspray can be uplifting on several different levels: its upbeat soundtrack of pop-infused show tunes, its bright wardrobe of poodle skirts and kiss curls and its predictable feel-good message. Hairspray is all about suspending belief. It’s about immersing oneself in a world where dreams do come true, where underdogs rise to the top, where right always triumphs over wrong and where the hottest guy falls in love with the chubby, confident girl next door. Hairspray is not without its clichés: somewhat superficial treatment of the civil rights movement, a token interracial couple and the predictable message that you’re fine just the way you are. While not bad in themselves, these aspects seem just a little too expected and glossy to be truly meaningful.

Ultimately, though, it’s the individual performances that save the film from its somewhat tepid storyline. Perhaps the most hyped casting is John Travolta’s turn as Traci’s overweight, insecure mother—and while Travolta is decidedly memorable, he is definitely not the only one who shines. Newcomer Nikki Blonsky owns the role of Traci, injecting her with a loveable spunk that wins viewers from her first moment on screen when she belts out the first few notes of “Good Morning Baltimore”. Amanda Bynes is nicely understated as Traci’s best friend and pigtailed sidekick. Zac Efron is the disarming Prince Charming and one of the film’s most entertaining scenes has him singing a declaration of his love for Traci to her framed photo. James Marsden pulls off the gel-infused suave of a 1960s television host, Michelle Pfeiffer is so bad she’s good as the evil Velma Von Tussel and Christopher Walken is entertaining as Traci’s dad who has accomplished his lifelong goal of owning a joke shop. (As far as I’m concerned, anyone who can serenade John Travolta in a dress earns props!) Queen Latifah and Elijah Kelley add the soul as Motormouth Maybelle and her son Seaweed, a singer and dancer struggling to shine amidst increasing marginalization. Jerry Stiller even makes a cameo appearance as the owner of Mr. Pinky’s Hefty Hideaway, a dress shop that recruits Traci as their spokesperson.

The solution, perhaps, is to accept Hairspray for what it is and enjoy it on that level. Its messages may be glossy but they are true. So accept characters named Velma Von Tussle, Prudy Pingleton or Motormouth Maybelle. Laugh at lyrics like “Without love life is like a prom that won’t invite us / It’s like getting my big break and laryngitis”. Celebrate who you are, even if that means bursting into spontaneous song and dance numbers in the street. Yes, Hairspray puts the cheese in mozzarella, but perhaps in the end that’s what makes it ridiculously endearing.

Directed by: Adam Shankman

Starring: John Travolta, Queen Latifah, Michelle Pfeiffer, Amanda Bynes and Nikki Blonsky

Rhyme Revolution Rating: * * * (1/2)

Reviewed by: Krista Simpson