Review: Hairspray

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This vapid edition of Hairspray is a safe, self-congratulatory fantasy which revisits the civil rights era not for a valuable history lesson but for an escapist, syrupy sweet, sing-a-long trip down memory lane to an unrecognizable, Hollywood utopia that never existed

Film Review

When first released in 1988, Hairspray was a socially-conscious satire which delivered a fairly potent political message about the evils and harm of culturally-codified ostracism and ethnic intolerance.

Set against the backdrop of the simmering tensions of a strictly-segregated Baltimore during the early Sixties, the campy cult classic followed the efforts of some idealistic teenagers to integrate a popular TV dance show.

That edgy original was directed by John Waters, an inveterate iconoclast who has never been afraid to tackle any controversial issue head-on, or in a manner which might cause his audience to squirm in their seats. His movie recreated an authentic ambience via a combo of period décor and retro choreography set to a catchy soundtrack featuring such hit songs as Town without Pity, You’ll Lose a Good Thing and It’s Madison Time.

In 2002 Hairspray was overhauled and revived on Broadway, winning eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Now, Adam Shankman has adapted that play back to the big screen as a bouncy and bubbly, but emotionally-eviscerated production which bears only a superficial resemblance to its source material.

This should come as no surprise since Shankman has previously directed such mass appeal comedies as Cheaper by the Dozen 2, The Pacifier, Bringing Down the House and The Wedding Planner.

Hairspray stars Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad, a light on her feet, plus-sized teen who has been dreaming of a chance to strut her stuff on The Corny Collins Show with cast regular Link (Zac Efron), a classmate she has a huge crush on. John Travolta (in drag) and Christopher Walken play her working-class parents, Edna and Wilbur, while Amanda Bynes appears as her best friend Penny Pingleton, and Brittany Snow as Link’s girlfriend, Amber von Tussle.

The plot thickens after Tracy’s disastrous audition during which she is rejected not for her dancing but because she says she’d have no problem swimming in a pool with black people. To add insult to injury, she ends up in trouble when she returns to school, because she had to cut class for the tryout.

Detention turns out to be a blessing in disguise, as it’s filled with cool African-American kids who share Tracy’s taste in music, mostly mediocre Broadway show tunes, judging by the score. So, she and Penny cross the color line to befriend them, especially Seaweed (Elijah Kelly) and his sister, Little Inez (Taylor Parks).

Everything comes to a head when WYZT’s steely station manager, Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer), cancels the once a month “Negro Day” dance program hosted Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah). Of course, Tracy comes to the rescue by leading a conscious-raising march demanding integration at WYZT and just in time for Inez to enter the Miss Teenage Hairspray Contest.

This vapid edition of Hairspray is a safe, self-congratulatory fantasy which revisits the civil rights era not for a valuable history lesson but for an escapist, syrupy sweet, sing-a-long trip down memory lane to an unrecognizable, Hollywood utopia that never existed. Look for blink-and-you-missed-it cameos by John Waters as a flasher, and Ricki Lake, who first introduced the role of Tracy, as a talent scout. 

 
Fair (1 star). Rated PG for teen smoking, mild epithets and suggestive content.
Running time: 107 minutes. Studio: New Line Cinema

 

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