Movie review: “Hairspray”

“Hairspray”—the film adaptation of the Broadway musical of the same name—is trite and formulaic. Some of its key characters are mere caricatures. I can’t remember the words or melody of any of its songs. And on top of that, I absolutely loved it, as did my wife and the two retirees who accompanied us to the cinema. In fact, as we left the theatre, I remarked, “This is the first movie I have seen in years that I would be happy to see again tomorrow.”

Musicals generally don’t adapt well to the silver screen. Too often, the music itself is the problem—not that the music is bad, but rather, that you start to get drawn into a story line, and then it’s “time-out” for a three-minute number; in other words, the plot languishes and the songs interrupt the flow of the plot rather than advancing it. In “Hairspray,” the songs never break the forward momentum of the story but are woven seamlessly into its fabric. I never looked at my watch once during this movie—a rarity for me—and when it was over, I couldn’t believe that almost two hours had passed.

“Hairspray” is set in Baltimore in 1962. The lead character is an innocent, endearing high school student, Tracy Turnblad, whose goal in life is to dance on Baltimore’s “Corny Collins Show”—sort of a local “American Bandstand”—where a number of her high school classmates already dance. The sponsor of the “Corny Collins Show,” by the way, is a company that markets hairspray; hence, the title of the movie.

The problem for Tracy is that she doesn’t fit the carefully crafted image of the “cool” teenage dancers on the show, where all the boys are lean and lithe, and all the girls are trim and shapely. Tracy, you see, is short and rotund. This makes her the object of scorn of the show’s reigning beauty queen/lead dancer, and of this girl’s mother—the director of the show and a wretchedly unhappy, pathetic, manipulative aging beauty queen, expertly played counter-to-type by Michelle Pfeiffer.

Tracy isn’t the only underdog in this movie. The others are all the black kids in her school who can dance as well or better as the white regulars on the “Corny Collins Show” but are limited to one appearance per month on “Negro Day.” (Remember, this is 1962.)A shared love for dance and music unites Tracy and the black kids, and you can’t help rooting for their ultimate, very satisfying triumph over the prejudices they face.

Indeed, the serious underlying message of this light-hearted, upbeat movie is the unoriginal, but important, idea that prejudging people on the basis of their type or group is unfair, absurd, at times cruel, and just plain stupid. I find it interesting, though, that in this movie against prejudice, the filmmakers couldn’t refrain from inserting one of Hollywood’s own entrenched prejudices: the one against Christians.

The only overtly Christian character in the movie is the comical mother of Tracy’s best friend who desperately wants to shield her daughter from the evils of this world, such as contact with black people. Her uptight, fearful obsessions bring hilarity to the movie, and I think there is more truth in this character’s portrayal than some Christians would be comfortable admitting. Still, when one considers how central a role Christians played in abolishing first slavery, and later segregation, in our country, it would have been more balanced and honest if at least one of the many characters in “Hairspray” who opposed prejudice—whether against blacks or overweight people—had made a reference to something learned in Sunday school about loving one’s neighbor or the Bible’s teachings against prejudice (“God is no respecter of persons,” “there is neither Jew nor Greek,” etc.).

If you have heard anything at all about “Hairspray,” chances are that is has something to do with buzz about a possible Oscar for John Travolta, who plays Tracy’s super-sized mother. Transvestitism is perennially fashionable in Hollywood. Just have a famous actor play a woman (Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie,” Robin Williams in “Mrs. Doubtfire”) and the Hollywood establishment goes ga-ga. In this case, though, although it was adequate, I didn’t find Travolta’s portrayal Oscar-worthy. In fact, if anyone in this movie deserves the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, it is Christopher Walken, who plays Tracy’s zany, self-effacing, heart-of-gold father. But the real star of this movie is young Nikki Blonsky, who plays Tracy. She carries this movie with her charisma, soulfulness and exuberance. She can really sing, too. If I could cast a vote for the “Best Actress” Oscar, it would go to this erstwhile unknown, who came out of nowhere to star in the best film adaptation of a musical in many a year.

If you are looking for some feel-good escapism—a little bit of high-quality cotton candy for the mind—check out this movie with a big heart and infectious spirit.