In Adam Shankman's adaptation of 'Hairspray,' a screwloose premise underscores one eminently sane message: sometimes, it's fun to stand up for who you really are.
"Hairspray" is a feel-good musical that, for a change, actually makes you feel good. Based on the Tony award-winning Broadway show derived from the 1988 John Waters movie, it opens with a bang – the high-spirited "Good Morning Baltimore" – and never lets up.
Although I enjoyed both the Waters movie and the Broadway show, I didn't necessarily want to see yet another incarnation of this material. (The movie musical of "The Producers" did not bode well for this sort of thing.) Add the fact that director Adam Shankman bears blame for the formulaic pap of "Bringing Down the House" and "Cheaper By the Dozen 2."
But it turns out that Shankman, who began his career as a dancer and choreographer for stage and film, was the perfect choice. "Hairspray" is one of the few movie musicals that is choreographed from beginning to end without seeming tiresome. Not all the numbers (score by Marc Shaiman) are winners, but the spirit behind them is so irrepressibly good-natured that it doesn't matter. The premise of "Hairspray," set in 1962, is screwloose but the film itself is eminently sane. It's a tribute to the unfettered fun that comes from standing up for who you really are.
Highly talented newcomer Nikki Blonsky plays Tracy Turnblad, a plus-sized high schooler from Baltimore who yearns to dance on the local TV party program, which features clean-cut white teens except for the once-a-month "Negro Day." Sent to detention for "inappropriate hair height," she discovers to her delight that just about everyone else there is black and practicing dance moves. She picks up enough steps to get hired as a replacement dancer on the show and becomes a threat to the reigning Miss Teenage Hairspray, whose gorgon mother, wickedly played by Michelle Pfeiffer, is not amused.
Tracy's double-plus-sized mother Edna, as all the world knows, is played by John Travolta, and he's marvelous. It would have been easy for him to wink at the audience and play Edna as an overripe drag queen. Instead, he inhabits the role so completely that the woman's pathos and humor come through without a trace of camp. Edna's gauzy love duet with her sweet nutcase husband (Christopher Walken) is improbably touching. When Edna finally locates her inner Tina Turner, you feel like applauding.
"Hairspray" is about accepting – celebrating – the differentness of others, whether it be skin color or waist size. Inspirational uplift usually dampens high spirits but not here, and I think that's because the filmmakers are having as much fun with the message movie genre as they are with the musical comedy genre. The spoofery makes the medicine go down easier. It tastes like nectar.