Great whiffs of summer fun for musical 'Hairspray'



This is not the first time that a movie musical based on a stage musical has its origins in an original non-musical film. While Mel Brooks has no claim on “Hairspray,” it’s still a delightfully light and breezy comedy set to music which belies the musical’s roots in the disturbed mind of cult film director John Waters.

To tap into the zeitgeist of the quirky filmmaker’s predilection for the bizarre, one would only have to watch his classic “Pink Flamingos,” which starred the transvestite Divine in a role that was intended to shock normal sensibilities. In fact, Waters subtitled this film “an exercise in poor taste.”

The visible extent of John Waters’ involvement in this musical version of “Hairspray” is his appropriately funny cameo of a flasher on the streets of Baltimore. It’s a wink to the knowing members of the audience, even more so than having Alfred Hitchcock stroll through a scene in one of his classics.

Nevertheless, there’s nothing in bad taste about “Hairspray” unless you’re offended by the presence of John Travolta in drag, heavily padded by a fat suit so as to be practically unrecognizable. If offense is given, then you’re missing the point of a film which tilts the balance in favor of people who just don’t fit in to the everyday world of Baltimore circa 1962, when the push for integration and social acceptance is taking hold.

At the heart of this movie is a big girl with big hair and an even bigger heart. Tracy Turnblad (delightful newcomer Nikki Blonsky), a perky yet chubby teen, bounces out of bed every morning with a passion for dancing. Every day after school, she rushes home with her best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) to watch the teen dance TV program, “The Corny Collins Show,” the object of her fantasy. It’s Baltimore’s hippest dance party, but her plus-sized figure sets her apart from the cool crowd and makes her an unlikely contestant. That is, until the day TV host Corny Collins (James Marsden) catches Tracy’s dance moves and finds her irresistible.

At home, Tracy is reminded of her outcast status by her loving but overly protective plus-sized mother Edna (John Travolta), who fears her daughter’s obsession with the TV dance show can only lead to heartache. Edna may be reserved because she hasn’t stepped foot out of the house since 1951.

Tracy’s eccentric dad Wilbur (Christopher Walken), who runs a shop that sells jokes and novelties, is more understanding. At school, Tracy is often in trouble and finds herself the only white student in detention, which proves to be fortuitous because she learns better dance moves from the black students. Of course, Tracy’s ease on the dance floor wins her a spot on “The Corny Collins Show” where she becomes an instant on-air sensation.

The sudden popularity of Tracy Turnblad causes much grief and consternation for the show’s reigning princess, the ice cool blonde beauty Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow). Even worse for Amber, it appears that her boyfriend Link Larkin (Zac Efron) is smitten with Tracy’s charms.

Not to be outdone by her pudgy rival, Amber gets an assist from her scheming mother Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer), the racist TV station manager who only lets blacks show up on the program in a monthly event that is condescendingly billed as “Negro Day.” The bitter Velma stops at nothing to keep the coveted “Miss Teenage Hairspray” crown in the family.

Meanwhile, with help from her school friends and record store owner Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah), Tracy becomes the catalyst of social reform by leading an integration march right on to the dance floor. It’s interesting how the serious issues of the early 1960s get wrapped up so neatly in song and dance, but the mission is effectively accomplished without being preachy, thus resulting in a movie both endearing and great fun to watch.

At its core, “Hairspray” is as bouncy as the bubbly Tracy and as goofy as her family members. With musical numbers wonderfully cheery, “Hairspray” is a perfect summer entertainment, full of laughs and an infectious spirit of fun that could put anyone in the mood to dance.

Tim Riley reviews movies for Lake County News.