Not everyone is a fan of musicals. This is especially true of males under the age of 40. Perhaps I should lower that number. All I know is that I’ve met plenty of men in their 60s and 70s who like musicals and aren’t scared to admit it.
I admit that until fairly recently, I didn’t have much use for them either. The performances seemed over-the-top and they felt pretty tedious. I think my taste changed mostly because I became a theatre minor at Western Kentucky University and hung out with a lot of people who were majors. Once you’ve seen a few good musicals and a few bad musicals, you really learn to appreciate the good ones.
So “Hairspray” isn’t for everyone, but if you like catchy doo-wop-style songs sung by likeable and funny characters, then you should check it out. The movie is based on the 2002 Broadway musical, which was based on the John Waters film of the same name. That movie (full disclosure: I still haven’t gotten around to watching it) was released in 1988, which is the same year that this movie’s lead, Nikki Blonsky, was born. In the film, we meet Tracy Turnblad (Blonsky), an overweight, but relatively happy, teenager whose biggest source of happiness comes from watching “The Corny Collins Show” every afternoon with her friend, Penny (Amanda Bynes). This is in 1962 Baltimore, where the schools are integrated, but everything else, including the “American Bandstand”-style local dance show is not. Once a month, though, the TV station throws the black community a bone by hosting “Negro Day.”
One day, Tracy is sent to detention, where she makes friends with some of the black kids from her school. Although she doesn’t fit in with the rest of her school that well, her new friends are impressed by how well she can dance. After a slot opens up on her favorite show, Tracy is ecstatic at the thought of getting on the show and goes to audition. In the audition, Collins (James Mardsen) asks what she would do if she were president.
“I’d make every day Negro Day,” Tracy says smiling.
Collins is charmed, but the station manager (a deliciously evil Michelle Pfeiffer) is horrified and delights in insulting Tracy’s size as she sends her out the door. Will Tracy miraculously end up on the show and teach her city a thing or two about tolerance? Will she get the cute boy, Link Larkin (Zac Efron)? Well, this is a happy-go-lucky musical, even with his racist characters, so the answer is clear.
Of course, everyone is talking about John Travolta’s performance as Tracy’s mom, Edna. Yes, it is hard to forget you’re watching Travolta in drag and in a fat suit because of how famous he is. I didn’t do myself any favors by watching “Pulp Fiction” again last week. Yet, the casting turns out not to be a gimmick. Edna is a heartfelt character whose shyness about being seen by the outside world and her devotion to her husband and daughter is quite touching. Better yet, Travolta manages to also be hilarious in the role. Not an easy feat to pull both of those off.
Once again, Christopher Walken manages to steal every single scene he’s in, this time as Edna’s lovable husband, Wilbur. Queen Latifah is also very funny as Motormouth Maybelle, the “Negro Day” host who manages to read every peppy line she given to say on the show in way that drips of sarcasm and contempt for her bosses at the station. Efron, known to millions of little kids as the lead in Disney’s “High School Musical,” is also surprisingly charming and funny.
Although the movie wouldn’t be the same without all its wonderful supporting performances, it also could not work without Blonsky. In her first role, she grabs the audience’s heart as the perfect underdog.
“Hairspray” is rated PG: Parental guidance suggested.