If Hairspray doesn’t get you tapping your feet and grinning from ear to ear, then—as the saying goes—check your pulse; you may be dead. Director Adam Shankman’s film is just about the most joyous Hollywood musical since Singin’ in the Rain—or certainly since the days when musicals were as common as comic-book superhero movies are now.
Hairspray traces its roots back through the hit Broadway show (eight Tonys, 10 Drama Desk Awards, still running after five years) to John Waters’ campy cult movie of 1988, telling the story of a plump teenager in 1962 Baltimore who turns her dream of dancing on a local rock ’n’ roll TV show into a crusade to integrate the show and get rid of its demeaning once-a-month “Negro Day.” The original film made a star of Ricki Lake as young Tracy Turnblad (both she and Waters make cameo appearances here). The Broadway musical did the same for Marissa Jaret Winokur, and Shankman’s movie is sure to bring the same luck to 19-year-old Nikki Blonsky, who literally bursts into the movie in the very first seconds singing “Good Morning Baltimore,” the opening number of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s irresistibly retro score.
Shankman continues a basic convention of the material by having Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s amply proportioned mother, played by a man. In Waters’ movie it was Divine (born Harris Glen Milstead), on Broadway Harvey Fierstein. Now, in surely one of the casting coups of the decade, Edna is played by John Travolta, wearing a hilarious fat suit that hampers his dancing skills not one bit.
In fact, hardly anybody’s dancing skills are hampered here. Shankman has been an indifferent director in the past (Bringing Down the House, Cheaper by the Dozen 2), but he cut his teeth as a choreographer, doing bits and pieces of films and TV shows as varied as George of the Jungle, Mission to Mars and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Now, with a full-fledged dancing musical comedy, it’s as if he’s been let out of a cage. Of course, it helps that (in the first half, at least) the music never stops for long; one song follows another with scant minutes between, and in the songs Shankman is really in his element, turning each one into a celebration of youthful exuberance.
Shankman’s cast seems similarly liberated by the songs, the spoofy atmosphere, and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli’s Roy Lichtenstein-style color scheme. Some of them have done musicals before: Travolta; Christopher Walken as Tracy’s adoring father; Queen Latifah as Motormouth Maybelle, her new friend on the “colored” side of town; Zac Efron as the heartthrob Link; Michelle Pfeiffer as villainous ice queen Velma Von Tussle. Others haven’t: James Marsden as TV host Corny Collins, Amanda Bynes as Tracy’s pal Penny Pingleton. Still, others are new and welcome faces, like Elijah Kelly and Taylor Parks as Maybelle’s son and daughter, and Blonsky herself. They all seem to be having the time of their lives. This is the kind of movie that other performers see and wish they could have been in.
The movie’s not perfect. Shankman’s pace slackens and his campy retro-’60s tone falters briefly in the second half, when Tracy and Maybelle lead a march on the segregated TV station, Maybelle singing the anthem “I Know Where I’ve Been.” But the moment was probably unavoidable. It’s one thing to poke fun at beehive hairdos, oily TV stars and Barbie-doll viragos in stiletto heels; it’s a fool’s errand to give the same treatment to 1960s civil-rights marchers, even without the dogs and fire hoses that made things so ugly in real life.
Fortunately, the candlelight solemnity passes, and Shankman manages to trudge through the next few minutes (the longest stretch without a song to spark the action). By the time things culminate at the big “Miss Hairspray” contest at the TV station, Shankman is back on track, bringing the movie home in style.
Hairspray’s signature song, one of its many production numbers, is “Welcome to the ’60s,” in which Tracy supposedly urges her mother forward into that decade. Actually, it’s the movie welcoming us back to a version of the 1960s spangled with italics, exclamation marks and vivid comic-book colors—history seen through a funhouse rear-view mirror, and a joy to behold.