“Good Morning Baltimore!”
Movie watching should not come with caveats. I’m not going to say “Hairspray is great, but it’s a musical: be forewarned!”. Screw that; I love musicals, and Hairspray is a consistently and thoroughly awesome, heartwarming and well executed piece of musical cinema (and it says something for me that I didn’t even think until a week later, after confronting many people who don’t like the idea of the movie, that another caveat would be “John Travolta wears a dress”).
There’s no one set of things that I look for in movies, and this allows me to see a variety of films like Black Book, Ratatouille, Shortbus and C.R.A.Z.Y. and to be able to say of each of them that they are precisely why I watch movies. Hairspray, too, is why I watch movies.
Baltimore! 1963, and segregation is still the flavour of the day. Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) is slavishly devoted to The Corny Collins Show, an after school dance program, and to one of its heartthrob dancers, Link (Zac Efron). When one of the Nicest Kids in Town has to take nine months off, Tracy auditions and gets on the show. When she learns that Velma von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) is planning on obliterating the monthly Negro Day, led by Motormouth Maybel (Queen Latifah), it’s time to take action … through dance!
The last huge movie musical would probably be Chicago. In the intervening years we’ve had Rent, The Producers and, most notably, Dreamgirls but, out of each of these, Hairspray is essentially the antithesis of Chicago. Based on cynicism and greed, Chicago is a musical in which the protagonists are the villains. Hairspray‘s strength is that it is a paean to optimism. The advertisements play down the integration angle, but it’s undeniably the glue of the movie. Hairspray is about being who you are, and not exactly “not giving a damn”, but about self-respect and respect for everyone else.
Tracy Turnblad is key to this equation: she’s not affected by her circumstances at all. Her self-assurance and boundless positivity carry the movie. There are obstacles in the story – this is a standard narrative movie, and as such it requires conflict to progress – but each song is about propulsion; only one song is somber, and even that is about the need to move ahead. Hairspray is a sunshine and rainbows movie that lets absolutely nothing stand in the way. It’s far more of a musical than Dreamgirls (the film, not the stage version), because the songs are directly, rather than metaphorically, related to the action on screen.
The family unit of Nikki Blonski, John Travolta and Christopher Walken is a delight to watch, with Travolta’s Edna Turnblad as someone who has let the world defeat her. Watching a size sixty woman come out of her shell is a joy, and Travolta plays Edna with exuberance and a hunger for Christmas hams. A duet between Travolta and Walken about the timelessness of their love is totally credible, albeit deliberately silly (“You’re like a stinky old cheese, babe/ just getting riper with age/ You’re like a fatal disease, babe/ but there’s no cure, so let this fever rage”). I had been excited about this movie for months, but when I saw Travolta singing part of “Welcome to the 60’s” in a promo I had to see this movie. I absolutely had to have it, and everyone involved singularly failed to disappoint me.
The rest of the cast are superlative, particularly Michelle Pfeiffer in her daringly angular role and James Marsden is marvellous as Corny Collins, proving that he can play something more than the Superhero Cuckold that he has popularised of late. Seeing Queen Latifah in a movie that is worthwhile is something particularly gratifying; it’s hard to believe that Hairspray is from the same director who brought us Bringing Down the House (and several other “family” movies – which it turns out that he’s not proud of).
Everything about Hairspray is infectious, but in the nicest way possible. Slickly designed, wonderfully choreographed, filled with humour and a positive message (be who you are, but if The Man stands in the way of that, tell him where to go), it deserves to become iconic. The only thing strange about it is that for a movie that is implicitly about racism, it pulls all of those punches. This isn’t Crash: The Musical, although I’ve no doubt that would be an amazingly overwrought, emotionally manipulative piece of work. Instead we’re left with a work that is a testimony to joy and your inability to stop the beat. Refusal to see Hairspray is something that makes me sad, but I take comfort in the fact that it’s rolling down the track. Yesterday is history, and it’s never coming back.