As Hairspray opens, director Adam Shankman's camera parts the clouds and peers down from the heavens on beautiful Baltimore. A star is born. Maryland's blue-collar port city deserves top billing in the Hairspray credits, for it is as much a central character to the story as John Travolta's portly and protective housewife or Michelle Pfeiffer's catty television producer.
Immediately, the music kicks in. The day-to-day sounds of the bustling town melt with Marc Shaiman's infectious doo-wop score and the camera swoops toward the modest bedroom of typical teen Tracy Turnblad, who is played to perfection by newcomer Nikky Blonsky. Another star is born. But though the angle may descend rapidly, Shankman's movie remains airborne for two full hours, bolstered by the incomparable high that accompanies the raucous joy of musical rebellion.
Almost a month has passed since I first saw Hairspray, yet still I smile whenever a particular scene or musical number comes to mind... which is often. A jolt of unbridled entertainment, Hairspray is the cinematic equivalent of the up-tempo track a wedding-reception deejay would play when he or she needs to coax people toward the dance floor and keep them there. It is the only film out this summer I have been begging everyone to see, and the one film I'm willing to see again and again.
Hairspray takes a uniquely circular path to the big screen. Shankman's film adapts the Tony-winning Broadway musical which, itself, was inspired by a John Waters movie (Waters gives his stamp approval early with a recognizable cameo during the film's opening number). Set during the segregated early '60s, Hairspray centers on happy-go-lucky teenager Tracy and her innocent (but misguided) efforts to land a spot on the wildly popular and racially sanitized Corny Collins dance program. Think American Bandstand as hosted by the surprisingly charismatic James Marsden and policed by the paranoid Pfeiffer.
Tracy's biggest obstacle to stardom, besides her own plump figure, might be her mother, Edna (Travolta, in women's clothing but never a drag). A virtual shut-in, Edna projects her fear of a close-minded society on her daughter and fails to see the young girl's inner beauty. Part of Tracy's journey includes updating her mother's mindset, which occurs during the robust duet "Welcome to the '60s."
To its credit, Hairspray doesn't pretend to be anything but a full-blown musical, offering tiny bridges of narrative dialogue between huge song-and-dance routines. Shankman butters his bread with musical beats, but retains the tongue-in-cheek racial humor that is held over from Waters' original film. Queen Latifah glows as Motormouth Maybelle, a sassy and street-smart personality who hosts Collins' annual "Negro Day." And Tracy picks ups dance moves previously unseen on the white side of the tracks when she befriends the sweetly supportive Seaweed J. Stubbs (Elijah Kelley) in detention. Shankman plays this material for knowing laughs, and gets them. The humor in Hairspray is so coyly offensive, it is rendered inoffensive.
Hairspray might not lull, but it does occasionally dance in place for a handful of offbeat scenes. Tracy ends up on the lam after she strikes a police officer during a civil-rights march. And the film's underlying theme of loving the one you're with receives surreal affirmation when Wilbur Turnblad (Christopher Walken) cements his affection for wife Edna during a moonlight serenade.
Travolta playing a female character is a stunt that fades quickly, as Edna becomes a legitimate character with desires and anxieties. The physical performance, while admirable, is eclipsed by those of Travolta's tireless young co-stars. I, for one, am head over heels in love with Blonsky, an unabashedly big performer with plus-size pipes that are nearly eclipsed by her winning personality. Blonsky is an urban legend in the making, a part-time ice-cream scooper turned Hollywood starlet when she wowed Hairspray recruiters at an open audition. Shankman captures on screen what those talent scouts saw live. Blonsky can swing it, sing it, shake it... whatever "it" is, she's got it.
Shankman himself comes full circle on Hairspray. Scan his directorial credits, which include pseudo-comedies like Cheaper by the Dozen 2, and you'd wonder how any studio would employ him. But Shankman spent a decade in choreography before attempting to direct, and Hairspray ends up being the right vehicle for his natural talents. He brings inventive spacing to bouncy numbers like "I Can Hear the Bells" and "Run Tell That." He coaches Pfeiffer through the slinky, breathy baritone tune "Miss Baltimore Crabs," then turns up the energy for the huge choruses of "Without Love" and the show-stopping "You Can't Stop the Beat." Never would I have believed the director of Vin Diesel's The Pacifier had this in him. I stand -- or, more appropriately, dance -- corrected.
Who doesn't like pie?