Sunday 5 August 2012

From the archive: "Hairspray"

John Waters' sprightly 1988 comedy Hairspray, concerning the troubled integration of black popular music in the white suburban Baltimore of the 1960s, derived from the director's make-nice period, which also gave us Johnny Depp as a teen rock idol in Cry-Baby and Kathleen Turner as a murderous housewife in the sunny, sitcommish Serial Mom. In the early years of the 21st century, Hairspray was turned into a hit Broadway musical, something unlikely to happen to such other Waters "classics" as Pink Flamingos (obese drag queen Divine eats actual dog faeces) or A Dirty Shame (in which nymphomania struck the same Baltimore community, and a gigantically-norked stripper proved to be the most chaste character on, as it were, display). That musical has now been turned back into a very likable film, which can boast 33% more colour, pep and energy than that other recent film-turned-musical-turned-film The Producers, and Waters himself in an early raincoated cameo as a granny-flasher. 

Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky, in a role played by Ricki Lake in the original) is an obsessive fan of TV's premier afterschool dance-off The Corny Collins Show. A pregnancy in the ranks affords her the opportunity to twist and shout her way up to the standing of the show's star dancer, despite the presence of a white supremacist ex-beauty queen producer (Michelle Pfeiffer) who'd rather Tracy's Nubian grooves were restricted to the ghetto. Soon this big-boned bundle of energy is bouncing up against all those walls that need to come tumbling down, liberating a square classmate (Amanda Bynes) and her overweight mother (John Travolta - yes, John Travolta - in a latex fat suit), and uniting Baltimore's black and white residents through the medium of song.

When there already exist several eminent plump, mumsy actresses, there doesn't seem much reason to cast Travolta as Mrs. Turnblad, except to continue the role's drag tradition (first played by Divine in the '88 film, the role was later filled by Harvey Fierstein on Broadway) and to suggest how Hairspray, with its quiffs and 'dos, was always something of a little sister to Grease. People tend to forget how subversive and witty Grease is, which might have rendered a film version of a stageplay of a film imitating (perhaps mocking) an even older film entirely redundant. Occasionally, this Hairspray threatens to become as synthetic and flavourless as the third-hand bubblegum it is. Marc Shaiman's songs, for example, are good rather than great: reminders of, rather than replacements for, the early Detroit sound that shapes the action. ("What's that?," Pfeiffer asks, "the sound of people getting mugged?")

But enough of Waters' warped DNA persists in the film's analysis of American race relations to make the new 'spray more than just teen-oriented fluff, and director Adam Shankman keeps ushering on very winning turns, whether Travolta and Christopher Walken (as a married couple!) taking a twirl around the washing lines, or the terrific Pfeiffer, who comes to prove her musical performance in The Fabulous Baker Boys was no fluke, and very nearly matches Debbie Harry's reading of the same role in the original. This version also has at least two outstanding juvenile leads in its favour: as Corny Collins himself, James Marsden is all lacquered insincerity, like a young Hughie Green, and the indefatigable Blonsky throws herself at the screen like Beth Ditto into a festival moshpit.

One potential weak link, the kisscurled Zac Efron - a weedy teen pin-up who seems perpetually on the brink of tears, a real-life Cry-Baby - at least knows his way around a musical number, and even the casting of the generally useless Bynes, with her scatty energy, makes some kind of sense in a film composed chiefly of wild hair and teeth. That undiscriminating glee - lest we forget, Shankman is the director who gave the world three of the worst films of the early 21st century (let the record show: The Wedding Planner, Bringing Down the House and Cheaper By The Dozen 2) - means Hairspray probably won't trouble the first rank of screen musicals, but it's by far the most fun I've had in a cinema this summer, and if it puts money in the pockets of Waters' dirty mac, then maybe that summer won't be a total washout after all. Much, much better than we had any right to expect, and likely to please both hen nights and the High School Musical crowd alike.

(July 2007)

Hairspray screens on Channel 4 tonight at 5.15pm.

No comments:

Post a Comment