I was fully prepared to hate this movie.
I balked at the idea of taking a classic and making it into a piece of emotionally vacant pop propaganda.
Most of all, though, the thought of everyone's favorite Scientologist in drag, besmirching the good name of Musical Theater, was too much for me.
Fortunately, I was wrong. The new "Hairspray" is both witty and unpretentious, retaining the balance of fun and seriousness so integral to the film both 20 years ago and today.
"Hairspray," set in Baltimore in 1962, follows plus-size teenager Tracy Turnblad (Nicole Blonsky) as she tries to earn a spot on the local "Corny Collins Show." Unfortunately, Tracy encounters more than a few obstacles due to her plus-size stature -- largely at the hands of the program's producer, Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfieffer).
But Tracy's personal fight for acceptance is only the beginning. In trying out for the program, she gives her mom, Edna (John Travolta), inspiration to get out of the house and embrace her big-bootied beauty. Perhaps most importantly, though, Tracy sparks a chain of events involving a group of her black friends, who are only allowed to appear on the "Corny Collins Show" once a month -- on "Negro Day."
Pop-soul tunes and a cornucopia of technicolor characters are done a surprising amount of justice in this remake. Rather than fighting the potentially ridiculous, hyper-dramatic nature of musical theater, "Hairspray" plays the quality up as a strength, embracing song and dance to create unapologetic musical comedy. The show's immense success on Broadway as well as its quality as a film is a testament to its versatility and universality.
But what is most impressive is that "Hairspray" isn't merely a good time -- it has a serious message of diversity and acceptance. In fact, the issue of racial rights emerges as the real heart of the film.
Unlike many other portrayals of race relations in media and art, in which the white savior rides in on his horse, sticks up for the black people and makes everything OK, Tracy moves out of the center of attention as "Hairspray" progresses. The black characters have agency of their own, and boy, do they put it to use. It is this devotion to people who are different -- and Hairspray's dichotomy of respect and campiness in dealing with them -- that made the original such a cult classic within gay culture.
"Hairspray" is exceptionally well-cast. Blonsky has a bright, strong voice and lots of chutzpah. Her Tracy was a tad too bright-eyed and bubble-gummy, but that seems a minor flaw considering that she was plucked from a job at Coldstone Creamery with no more experience than roles in high school musicals.
Christopher Walken gives the most delightful performance of the film in the role of Wilbur Turnblad. Walken doesn't take himself too seriously, but he does take the film seriously; he's willing to do whatever it takes to do the piece right -- including an utterly delightful love duet with Travolta. (Don't knock it until you've seen Walken do a pirouette.)
In addition to being a complete riot, the scene embodies the film's ideal of being in love with someone no matter what he or she looks like. That runs the risk of being corny to the extreme, yet it works here because Walken looks at Travolta as if he really will love him forever.
Pfieffer is also a surprise in her utterly delicious rendition of Von Tussle. Her voice might not be Broadway stage material, but it's just enough to make Von Tussle a particularly loathsome brand of heinous. Elijah Kelley plays Seaweed J. Stubbs, the leader of the group of black dancers hoping to get a better spot on the Collins show. Kelley's dancing steals the stage -- and he's sure to cause more than a few girls' mouths to water in the process.
Queen Latifah stars as the host of "Negro Day" and den mother to Seaweed's group. Her character delivers the wisdom that the other adult characters lack, and the Queen herself dishes out a hearty helping of soul.
As for Travolta? Well, the casting choice certainly wasn't without incident. Kevin Naff, editor of the gay newspaper the Washington Blade, has proposed a boycott on "Hairspray," claiming that "Travolta has no business reprising an iconic gay role, given his cult's stance on gay issues."
In response to other, similar qualms, Travolta told MSNBC that Scientology was not anti-gay, but rather very tolerant. However, he also claimed, "There is nothing gay in this movie. I'm not playing a gay man."
Clearly, Travolta doesn't understand the significance "Hairspray" has for the gay community. But whatever unsettling comments Travolta may make, we should probably let his performance speak for itself.
Initially, Travolta's take on Edna doesn't seem to speak much more gracefully than he does: Travolta creates a disappointing caricature vaguely reminiscent of Austin Powers with a Southern accent. This is then exacerbated by shots of his rear-end that aim for cheap laughs and undermine the character's humanity.
Gradually, though, Edna becomes a very real, endearingly vulnerable character; earlier cheap shots are eclipsed as her newfound confidence and personality take the stage. Eventually, Edna emerges as yet another example of Hairspray's devotion to diversity, and Travolta does his job in making that clear.
It's still pretty clear that Harvey Fierstein (who won a Tony for his performance of the role on Broadway) would have been a better Edna, but kudos to Travolta for proving us wrong and doing an honorable job -- whatever his religious beliefs.
"Hairspray" is a smorgasboard of infectious tunes, energetic dancing and vibrant characters. Most importantly, though, the film unabashedly deals with racism, a very real issue of the '60s and -- let's face it -- today.
Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)
Nicole Blonsky, John Travolta and Christopher Walken star in Adam Shankman's take on the movie-musical about a super-sized teenager determined to make a splash in 1962 Baltimore.