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Hair-raising musical entertains, but why Travolta?

Reeling It In

Posted: Thursday, July 26, 2007

"Hairspray"

New Line Cinema

1 hour, 47 minutes

I remember when "The Producers" was released a couple of years ago, I thought we'd seen a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. A movie that started its life as a straightforward nonmusical comedy gets adapted as a big Broadway musical, is a huge hit and then subsequently is released onscreen as a big-budget musical remake of itself. Well, it's happened again.

"Hairspray," the story of a plus-sized girl with an extra-plus-sized heart trying to become a star on an oh-so-white-and-perky 1962 dance show is actually very sweet and funny and makes the transition from screen to stage to screen remarkably well, with one exception, which I'll address later on.

Filling in the role of our plump little heroine is newcomer Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad. Tracy's dream is to dance on the Corny Collins Show with all the other cool kids from her Baltimore high school.

Unfortunately, when Tracy auditions for a vacancy on the show, she runs afoul of one Velma Von Tussle, station owner and dance-mom from hell. Velma, played by Michelle Pfeiffer in her evil mode, looks Tracy up and down and dismisses her as too short, too fat, too "different.

Our hero's fortune changes, however, when the host of the show, Corny himself, catches Tracy at the staging for the show's once monthly Negro Day. It seems Tracy learned a few steps from some kids even more outcast than she. Suddenly she's on the show — an instant star. But wait. What about those other kids, those other people who are "different?" Will Tracy use her newfound celebrity to try to help others in need? What do you think?

Disguised as a catchy, fun musical, "Hairspray" is actually a comment on everything from race relations to the transition from '50s-pop to true rock 'n' roll. It's a look at the beginning of one of the most turbulent, most creative and most destructive periods in our nation's history — the 1960s.

It's a catchy, fun look, which disarms some of the social commentary, but it's a look nonetheless. Tracy, whose enthusiasm and optimism render her almost cartoon-like, dreamily tells her new black friends, "I wish every day could be Negro Day!" to which they reply wryly, "At our house, it is."

As our hero ventures to new neighborhoods, we meet an engaging cast of support players, including Christopher Walken, Allison Janney, Amanda Bynes, and best of all, Queen Latifah, the original plus-sized diva herself.

The acting in "Hairspray," much of it involving Broadway-style singing, is particularly good. Bynes, as Tracy's best friend Penny, is particularly adorable and steals every scene she's in. Elijah Kelley, as Seaweed, a black dancing teen with a heart for romance, is also good. Walken, Janney, Pfeiffer, Latifah, all carry their scenes well, hoofing it up with the kids with aplomb.

In fact, the dancing and singing is top-notch all the way across the board. Suffice it to say that if you like musicals, you'll probably like this one. Except for one little problem. OK, maybe not so little.

John Travolta, who I typically like, is a huge distraction in this film as Edna Turnblad, Tracy's mother. Perhaps I should back up. In 1988, when the original "Hairspray" was released, director John Waters, who has a disturbingly funny cameo in this new version, enlisted the help of his longtime collaborator Divine. Divine, the actor not the adjective, was a cross-dresser Waters had known since high school and was a constant presence in any of the director's films.

Since Waters was a little creepy himself, and because he thought it'd be cute, he cast his oversized leading lady (man?) as Tracy's embattled mother. Divine also played another role, a male this time, in the film, and the element was merely a weird Waters-homage to his friend.

For some reason, however, every producer since has decided that the role of Edna must be played by a man in a fat-suit and drag. Enter Travolta in enough make-up to put "Battlefield Earth" to shame. It's not that he's particularly bad in the role — he's fine, even funny at times; it's just that he's incredibly distracting.

I was never able to forget that I was watching Travolta as a 300-pound woman and as such, I was never able to connect with the character.

This is a major sticking point for me, as the casting of a normal-sized man seems to go against the whole you-can-succeed-even-if-you're-fat-and-a-woman ethic that the movie seems to be espousing.

The music is good, the songs are cute, and the acting is fun. But why, why Travolta? Maybe I'm wrong — the audience I was with laughed every time he was onscreen. Then again, maybe they were just high on all the hairspray. Grade: B-

"Hairspray" is rated PG for innuendo and brief language.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.



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