Hairspray

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Hairspray
Review (9/10)
(By Erin Cullin)

The year was 1975, and a little-known actor who had gained his acting chops on Broadway with a role in a production of the musical, "Grease", was given the break of a lifetime when he was cast as Vinnie Barbarino in a new ABC television called "Welcome Back Kotter". In 1977, the kid proved he could dance with his Oscar-nominated performance as Tony Manero "Saturday Night Fever". In 1978, he showed us that he could sing and dance when he took the lead role as Danny Zuko in the big-screen production of "Grease".

Since his meteoric rise to fame in the 1970's, John Travolta has ridden a roller coaster of career highs ("Pulp Fiction", "Get Shorty") and career lows ("Two of a Kind", "Battlefield Earth"). Yet, somehow, he has been persistently resilient and, some would argue, is a pop culture icon. He has been nominated twice for an Oscar (he also garnered a nomination for his performance as Vincent Vega in "Pulp Fiction"). He has appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine more than any other actor. He has been ranked by Entertainment magazine as one of the top 100 actors of all time. And, for what it is worth, his piercing blue eyes and cleft chin were once prominently displayed on the walls of an impressionable young girl who later went on to become a lawyer and a budding film critic. Yes, that's right - while my friends were swooning over Shaun Cassidy, Leif Garrett and Scott Baio (where are they now, girls), for me it was all about John Travolta. For some reason, I was always able to spot the winning horse.

In the past couple of years, John Travolta has been descending the career rollercoaster with some less than stellar film choices that have included, "Domestic Disturbance", "The Punisher" and "Lonely Hearts". When I read that he had accepted the drag-queen role of Edna Turnblad in the remake of Hairspray, I abandoned all hope for another career renaissance and moved John Travolta into the Sylvester Stallone drawer of my mental filing cabinet.

Boy, was I wrong.

Hairspray tells the story of Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky), a perky teen who will stop at nothing to earn a spot as a dancer on the Corny Collins Show. Against the wishes of her mother, Edna (Travolta), Tracy cuts class to try out for a spot that has been vacated by another teen who has had to take a nine-month "leave of absence", but her dreams are cruelly crushed by the station manager Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her diabolical daughter, Amber (Brittany Snow). After learning some new dance moves from a group of black teenagers, Tracy earns the coveted spot and with her new-found fame teaches 1960's Baltimore that embracing people's differences is the way of the future.

A remake of the 1988 John Waters cult classic of the same name, Hairspray is the best movie musical that I have seen since Chicago. To say that this film surprised me would be an understatement. I went into it expecting nothing and was shocked by how much I enjoyed it. It was absolutely fantastic.

The success of this film is the result of a perfect union of excellent directing, choreography, scriptwriting, scoring and casting. This is a film that could easily have been so over-the-top that it would have been unwatchable, but instead it manages to be classically campy, bitingly witty and just plain fun.

I suspect that the film owes a large part of its success to the fact that it was both directed and choreographed by the same person - the very talented Adam Shankman, who also directed the oddly amusing and wildly successful comedy, Bringing Down the House. Shankman initially earned a name for himself as a Hollywood choreographer, and his talents are apparent in Hairspray. He manages to create a visually stunning film that exudes energy from the minute that Tracy Turnblad bounces out of bed in the opening scene to the full-cast dance finale as the closing credits roll. This is a film that required a director with a choreographer's eye and, in this role, Shankman was an excellent choice.

The element of the film that I particularly enjoyed was its scriptwriting. In spite of its bubblegum appearance, Hairspray is not just a film about dancing. It is a film about intolerance - racial intolerance, religious intolerance, intolerance of the physical differences of others. It tackles these issues with a sharp eye and a biting wit. Every scene and every word has a role in delivering the film's message. The dialogue was so sharp that it actually made me laugh out loud. Some of the double-entendres were hilarious.

In the end, though, as is the case with most films, Hairspray is successful because of the collective talents of its stellar cast. Although her name is eclipsed by those of the film's bigger stars, this film belongs to the unknown actress cast to fill the shoes of Tracy Turnblad. Before starring in Hairspray, Nikki Blonsky was working in an ice cream parlour in Great Neck, New York. Her only credits were her performances in her high school musicals. Thanks to an open casting call, enormous talent and dreams of making it big, she found herself making her post high-school debut starring next to some of the biggest names in modern cinema. It is difficult to say whether she has any future on the silver screen beyond the musical genre, but she no doubt has a promising future on Broadway should she choose to pursue it.

The film's other notable performance was John Travolta's performance as Edna Turnblad. In the original film, Edna Turnblad's shoes were filled by Baltimore's beloved drag queen, Divine. In subsequent Broadway productions, the role has also been filled by men in drag. Although an unlikely choice, Travolta was perfectly cast in this film. He can sing, he can dance and his is the performance that gives this film its camp. I was skeptical at first, but having seen the film I cannot imagine anyone else in this role. I will be very surprised if Travolta is not nominated for at least a Golden Globe for this performance.

The cast is completed with stellar performances by Christopher Walken, Michelle Pfeiffer, Queen Latifah, Amanda Bynes, Zac Efron, James Marsden and Elijah Kelley. If I had one complaint, it would be the fact that Michelle Pfeiffer seems to be on her way to being typecast as an evil, diabolical hag, a stereotype which is not only beneath her acting talent, but is also offensive to all women over forty. But, I will save that rant for another review.

Rounding out the film is its excellent musical score. The music is energetic and is guaranteed to have the audience tapping its toes. The lyrics have the same biting wit as the film's dialogue. And, there are a few surprises - who knew that Christopher Walken could sing and dance? Any one of these numbers could be nominated for an Oscar, and if I were a betting person I would say that, if nothing else, the music of Hairspray is going to find itself on the Academy's billboard next year.

Hairspray is not a film that will appeal to everyone. If you are someone who does not enjoy musicals, then I would steer clear of this production (I have at least two brothers and a husband who fit into this category). But, if you are someone who enjoys music, dancing and some light entertainment, with a hint of satirical wit thrown in for good measure, then step into the theatre and cover yourself in Hairspray.

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