`Hairspray,’ a movie musical to love

Summer has finally arrived, at least it has for me. Living in the cool-to-cold, foggy Bay Area, I seek my summer thrills in movie theates (sorry, but the thought of outdoor summer theater in the Bay Area fills me with dread — except for California Shakespeare Theater, whose skills transcend the cold).

I found summer in Hairspray, the hilarious, joyful movie version of the Broadway musical, which is in turn based on an original 1988 John Waters movie. Forget recent Broadway-to-movie adaptations like Rent, The Producers and The Phantom of the Opera. They don’t even begin to compare to the thrills of Hairspray, which manages — and this is really something — to not feel manufactured. It feels clever and sharp and well constructed, which makes it feel less like a shiny product and more like an engaged and engaging work of art.

Way back in the summer of 2002, I remember listening to the cast album of Broadway’s Hairspray straight through (this was before my iPod put my life on shuffle) and immediately went to the computer and bought a ticket for the show, then planned a trip to New York around it.

I’ve been a fan since, and the show is among the most enjoyable I’ve ever experienced. There’s just something about the energy of the cast and the audience having a great time and dancing to the same beat.

The movie, frankly, made me nervous. Director Adam Shankman didn’t seem the obvious choice to guide the movie or choreograph it on the basis of his previous film work such as The Wedding Planner, A Walk to Remember and >Bringing Down the House. Well, it turns out Shankman was exactly the right man to bottle the exuberance of the show and translate it into a movie that seems like a movie much more than stage-bound show.

Little details abound in the movie that make it worth seeing more than once, and the performances are, for the most part, stellar. I was thoroughly unconvinced by John Travolta as Edna Turnblad in the previews, but he quickly won me over with his Baltimore accent, which quickly turns charming (and has me calling everyone “hun.”) Young Nikki Blonsky is a real find as Tracy, the plucky teen dancer who inadvertently helps integrate Baltimore television in 1962.

It turns out that Michelle Pfeiffer looking more gorgeous than ever, is a crispy comic actress; Christopher Walken is made for quirky musicals; Zac Efron proves more than a pretty face as Linc Larkin; James Marsden lights up the screen as Corny Collins; Allison Janney as a religious nut mother steals every scene she’s in (which isn’t many); and if they ever make The Sammy Davis Jr. Story, I elect newcomer Elijah Kelley, who plays Seaweed here, for the part.

I must admit a little disappointment in Queen Latifah as Motormouth Maybelle. Latifah is a delightful screen presence, no question, and she looks great here. But she’s lacking the emotional heft the role needs. Maybelle is a deeply soulful woman with a tremendous zest for life. She’s sensual and spiritual, and those aspects don’t really come through in Latifah’s performance, pleasant as it is.

Screenwriter Leslie Dixon has made some smart choices in adapting the musical for the screen, and genius songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman have augmented the Broadway score with some good new songs, including “Ladies Choice” and “Come So Far (So Far to Go).” I noticed at least four songs in the credits (all Shaiman-Wittman compositions) that are not on the movie soundtrack CD. What gives? Can we expect a Vol. II if the movie’s as huge a hit as it deserves to be?

I hope when Oscar time rolls around next year, the Academy remembers that in the summer of 2007, there was a major flash of celluloid happiness called Hairspray.

6 thoughts on “`Hairspray,’ a movie musical to love

  1. Thoroughly charming movie, but I couldn’t quite buy Travolta as Edna. Sweet as he was in the role, he is still Tony Manero to me. Loads of visual punch and humor. Go John Waters! (Enjoyed his cameo.) Brilliant, and great fun. Right up there with “Chicago” as a really well executed shift from stage to film.

  2. ive alredy seen it and its amazin!!!!!!! the songs r brilliant and soo funny!!.
    i also fink zac efron look so good in this film as Link Larkin.

  3. I loooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooove this movie! the acting, the singing, the dancing are all so amazing! nikki blonsky is so great as tracy turnblad and zac efron is the hottest link larkin EVER!!!! john travolta is also really funny as a woman and he’s a good singer! this movie is sheer genius! everyone is just so talented!

  4. A horrible, horrible movie!!!! I had to suffer through it on a two hour bus ride!! I should have ripped it out of the dvd and put it where it belonged…the trach. It’ll take weeks to recover from that movie.

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