It boggles the mind that a film written and directed by John Waters has had such a long afterlife that, nearly thirty years after the original creation, Hairspray can serve as wholesome televised family entertainment during the holiday season. And though translation into a full-blown musical was part of the journey, the Waters vision wasn’t sanitized in the slightest. (Admittedly, this all derives from about the only film in the Waters oeuvre that could work with this treatment.) This is the review I wrote for the film version of the musical, originally posted at my previous online home.
Honestly, the perfectly executed John Waters cameo was enough to made me glad I saw it.
Waters is of course the unique auteur behind the original 1988 film that served as the foundation for the Tony-winning musical that in turn generated the new star-filled big screen musical Hairspray. The 1988 effort is a little wonder, an ode to the teen music shows of Waters youth, tinged with a thrilling candy-colored nostalgia but cut with hard honesty of racial divides. It’s probably saying to much to call that film profound, but it’s also saying too little to call it a trifle.
The new Hairspray is a trifle.
In conveying the story of overweight teen Tracy Turnblad, who powers past the image-conscious powers-that-be to secure a spot on the afternoon dance-fest “The Corny Collins Show,” eventually raising her own consciousness through friendship with the kids whose time on the tube is typically relegated to the monthly “Negro Day,” the film still touches on these issues that are greater than mastering the footwork to “Madison Time.” Yet, while Waters brought a rambunctiousness to his political points, an impish boundary-pushing that gave the ideas their own sort of daring, the musical is more likely to get at these concerns with a misplaced solemnity or, at best, a wry appraisal from the vantage of forty-five years past the film’s chronological setting. This manifests itself clearly in the music. Songwriter and composer Marc Shaiman is always at his best when he’s allowing himself to be loose and funny. When he strains for seriousness, condensing the power of the “we shall overcome” sentiment into a show tune, say, the results are typically dour. All this potent posturing actually serves to make the film feel more forgettable, more insignificant that Waters’ spirited predecessor.
That’s not to say that the new film doesn’t have its entertainment value. By definition, trifles are pretty sweet and enjoyable, and Hairspray is generally ingratiating and resplendent with inspired casting choices, from Michelle Pfeiffer, as a villainous ex-beauty queen, to Queen Latifah, who is truly the only person who could step in for the late Ruth Brown as Motormouth Maybelle. Even Amanda Bynes is a perfectly match, blinking brightly as the blankly sweet Penny Pingleton.
The film’s most notable casting trick is getting John Travolta to fill Divine’s muu-muu, and it’s to his credit that he approaches the role without a hint of condescension or winking camp. He’s genuinely trying to get to the heart of this role, playing a woman who has effectively been a shut-in for a decade experiencing a sort of rebirth through her daughter’s passion for facing the world unafraid. Travolta’s Edna Turnblad is sweet, easily hurt by the judgment of others and, at times, downright adorable. While he settles into the role nicely, it’s not quite right to say that you forgot it’s Travolta. If anything, there’s an extra added kick to his scenes because of his history on film. I doubt think there’s an actor in the last thirty years who’s more dependably made his presence felt on screen through the vividness of his physical grace, especially in dancing scenes. Sure, this made him a star in Saturday Night Fever and Grease, but it’s also the case in movies as different as Pulp Fiction and Look Who’s Talking. To see him successfully employ that same skill while in drag and weighed down in a fat suit is engrossing in its own way.
It would have been nice is the director had matched his cast. Adam Shankman is a choreographer who’s previous film directing efforts fill every last screen of the multiplex in hell, and, while he does a serviceable job here, he never gets the film to kick into the sort of buzzy overdrive that it needs. He has too much of a penchant for unnecessary cutaways, the sure sign of a director lacking in creativity. Certainly John Waters always knew the value of holding a shot. Shankman may have done a decent job honoring John Waters’ affection for the underdog, but has none of his predecessor’s warped panache. That, maybe more than anything else, is what this new movie really needs.