Hairspray (2007): Adam Shenkman’s Hollywood Musical Based on John Waters Cult Film

Offering a much-needed respite from the big, noisy, special-effects actioner-adventures this summer, “Hairspray” is an old-fashioned fun, an unabashedly feel-good musical that wears its retro look like a badge of honor.  The “coolest” thing about this presumably “offbeat” screen version is how mainstream its text has become.

Adam Shankman’s movie musical is not exactly fresh, based as it is on John Waters’ 1988 cult film “Hairspray,” which was then turned into a Tony-award winning Broadway musical, still running in New York and playing nationally.  Shankman is an unpretentious director with strong commercial instincts, committed to entertainment for entertainment’s sake.

Since the musical is a period piece–the tale is set in 1962 Baltimore–we’re willing to ignore the flaws–the screenplay is uneven, some of the musical numbers are not terribly exciting, some of the acting is bland–and go with the flow.

“Hairspray” is a campy, uplifting movie in the positive sense of these terms. The movie should leave with a smile and more than a touch of nostalgia for the early 1960s “end of innocence,” before the political assassinations and the carnage of Vietnam, a time when it was O.K. to use the word Negro without being penalized or even criticized.

Much of the pleasure stems from the casting, from seeing John Travolta in a musical after decades of absence. Stepping into the shoes of Divine in the Waters’ film and Harvey Feinstein in the Broadway hit, Travolta plays the loving, plus-sized Edna, the over-protective mother of Tracy, straightforward, with more subtlety and nuance than the way Robin Williams did the drag scenes in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” but without conscious effort to modernize or politicize his part. The link to “Mrs. Doubtfire” is actually more direct than it first appears, since both films were scripted by Leslie Dixon.

But the movie’s the real find is 18-year-old newcomer Nikki Blonsky, perfectly cast as Tracy Turnblad, a big girl with big hair and big dream, to appear on “The Corny Collins Show,” Baltimore’s hippest dance party on TV. Tracy feels special affinity for the show, except for one “minor” problem: She simply doesn’t fit in. Tracy’s large frame has always set her apart from the cool crowd at school, but that doesn’t stop hershe was born to dance.

Early on, Tracy’s father Wilbur (Christopher Walken, underused) tells her, “Go for it! You’ve got to think big to be big.” And boy does she think–and sing–big. Embracing the dictum of Odets’ best-known play, “Awake and Sing,” the musical begins on a high note with Tracy’s song, “Good Morning Baltimore,” which she delivers with a gusto that sets the film’s tone on a spirited, high energy level that the mid-sections find hard to sustain.

After wowing Corny Collins (James Marsden) at her high school dance, Tracy wins a spot on his show and becomes an instant on-air sensation, much to the distress of the show’s reigning princess Amber (Brittany Snow) and her scheming mother, Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer), the manager of the TV station WYZT.

Gradually, Amber’s desirable boyfriend, Link Larkin (charming and handsome Zac Efron), is also smitten with Tracy’s charms. This dance party gets more personal as a feud erupts between the girls based on their competition for the coveted “Miss Teenage Hairspray” crown.

School, however, is another story, and one detention follows another. The warm relationship between Tracy’s best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) and Seaweed (Elijah Kelley), a black guy, awakens Tracy to an issue bigger than the latest dance craze or the coolest hairdo: Racial segregation.

When Tracy leads a march with Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) to fight for integration and inequality, she winds up with an arrest warrant instead. On the lam, literally, Tracy goes underground in her best friend Penny’s basement. After a rather sagging mid-reel, in which not much happens, the saga builds to a rousing finale, the dance-off against Amber.

Times have changed. Back in the late 1980s, when Reagan was still in power, John Waters perceived hairstyle as politics, it was “We the minorities Vs. Them the moral majority.” Two decades later, “Hairspray” the musical movie is gentler and kinder, more of a campy yet respectful recreation of a bygone era than a political statement. (Milos Forman’s musical “Hair,” released in 1979, over a decade after the stage production, suffered from the same problem).

Like the “Shrek” animation series, “Hairspray” propagates the value of being different, even slightly “perverse,” the whole notion that you can be a winner even if you’re a misfit. Twenty years ago, you had to fight for it, but these days, American pop culture is so offbeat and off-center, in large part due to the edgier and racier fare shown on TV, that “Hairspray” the musical comes across as reaffirmation rather than critique of the mainstream. As noted earlier, the young leads, Nikki Blonsky and Zac Efron, are terrific and it’s a pleasure to watch them. Blessed with the looks of a heartthrob, Efron (of High School Musical” fame) is a major talent to watch, with bright Hollywood future ahead.

The supporting cast, however, leaves much to be desired. While Michelle Pfeiffer is appropriately vicious and campy as Velma Von Tussle, Christopher Walken as Wilbur Turnblad is bland, and the movie doesn’t take advantage of his comedic or dancing skills, evident in previous pictures, like “Blast from the Past” (which New Line made) and “Pennies from Heaven,” in which he danced gloriously.

Problem is, Dixon has written for the most part one-dimensional characters, which may explain why an energetic and exuberant actress-singer like Queen Latifah doesn’t live up to her character’s name, Motormouth Maybelle. Too restrained, Latifah plays her part as a kindergarten teacher rather than a rebel-leader. A flirtatious scene between Walken and Pfeiffer is also quite weak, nearly threatening to arrest the narrative flow and good time.

It’s nice to see in cameo roles John Waters early on, and Ricki Lake later. Jerry Stiller, who played Christopher Walken’s part in the 1988 film, is also back as Mr. Pinky, the owner of the Hefty Hideaway, a dress shop with “Quality Clothes for Quantity Gals.”

Director Adam Shankman, who previously made the Queen Latifah hit “Bringing Down the House” and “The Pacifier,” draws on his Broadway roots as dancer and choreographer, and the early dance sequences are particularly strong. It’s a relief that, contrary to the current norm in musicals (“Chicago,” “Dreamgirls”), Shankman subscribes to the mise-en-scene rather than montage school, refraining as much as possible from the MTV-like fragmentation, cutting, and pacing of the production numbers. Here is a musical where you can see the actors’ faces and feet at the same time, and the whole group dancing in the same frame.

The music is by Emmy, Tony and Grammy Award-winner and five-time Oscar-nominee Marc Shaiman (“Sleepless in Seattle,” “South Park: Bigger,” “Longer & Uncut”) with lyrics by Tony and Grammy Award-winner Scott Wittman and Shaiman. The addition of several brand new songs, created specifically for the film adaptation, is more than welcome.

Special kudos go to the creative production team, which includes director of photography Bojan Bazelli (“Mr. & Mrs. Smith”), production designer David Gropman (“The Cider House Rules”), editor Michael Tronick, costume designer Rita Ryack, and set decorator Gordon Sim (Oscar-winner for “Chicago”), who have made a bright, colorful picture, very much in tune with the zeitgeist of the early 1960s.

<b<cast< b>

Edna Turnblad –John Travolta Velma Von Tussle – Michelle Pfeiffer Wilbur Turnblad – Christopher Walken Penny Pingleton – Amanda Bynes Corny Collins – James Marsden Motormouth Maybelle – Queen Latifah Amber Von Tussle – Brittany Snow Linc Larkin – Zac Efron Seaweed – Elijah Kelley Prudy Pingleton – Allison Janney Mr. Pinky – Jerry Stiller Mr. Spritzer – Paul Dooley Tracy Turnblad – Nikki Blonsky Little Inez – Taylor Parks

Credits

MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 114 Minutes. A New Line Cinema release presented in association with Ingenious Film Partners, of a Zadan/Meron production, in association with Offspring Entertainment. Produced by Craig Zadan, Neil Meron.

Executive producers, Bob Shaye, Michael Lynne, Toby Emmerich, Mark Kaufman, Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Adam Shankman, Jennifer Gibgot, Garrett Grant. Co-producers, Michael Disco, Daryl Freimark, Travis Knox.

Directed, choreographed by Adam Shankman.

Screenplay, Leslie Dixon, based on the 1988 screenplay by John Waters and the 2002 musical stage play, book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman, Shaiman.

Camera: Bojan Bazelli.

Editor: Michael Tronick.

Music: Shaiman; music supervisor, Matt Sullivan.

Production designer, David Gropman.

Art director, Dennis Davenport. Set decorator: Gordon Sim.

Costume designer: Rita Ryack.

Sound: David MacMillan.