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It's hard to resist the ecstatic bubble gum pop of Hairspray, but if you had to quibble with Adam Shankman's remake of John Waters' classic civil rights musical, you might start with the surfeit of sugar poured into every last frame of film. There is so much saccharine feel-goodiness packed into the film that by the end you will feel more bloated with positive campaigning than John Travolta looks in his super-sized drag get-up. It's like eating an entire box of "equality" donut holes in one sitting.
Yet this is a film that never pretends to be anything but an over-the-top gooey celebration of the American musical. The story begins almost in medias reas, with Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) jumping exuberantly out of bed with "Good Morning Baltimore," perhaps the best of the more than 20 dance numbers performed. The irresistible teenager bounces through her neighborhood as if it were Oz, even though it clearly ain't (she literally rides a garbage truck to school). And almost immediately we are made aware of Tracy's central goal: to dance on The Corny Collins Show.
While Tracy and her friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bines) swoon over Corny (James Marsden) and his cohorts, we are always aware of just how much the TV stars are hamming it up. In between perfect smiles the dancers are choking on hair product chemicals, tripping over and into one another and jockeying for more camera time. In emphasizing the disconnect between the utopia Tracy sees on television and the real world behind the camera, Shankman is mirroring the experience of the film itself. The viewer is meant to enjoy Tracy's world as fantasy on the surface, but must unavoidably ponder the real world issues that are bubbling underneath at the same time.
This understanding hinges on the cross-dressed performance of Travolta as Tracy's mother, Edna Turnblad. Not only is the costuming intentionally extreme, but there is also little effort made to conceal Travolta's voice - even when she sings. Both Waters original film and the wildly popular Broadway adaptation featured men in this role, but the casting here is perhaps even more deliberate. This being an American musical and all, you don't cast Danny Zuko himself in the most visible role of the film unless you want people to know that it is indeed Danny Zuko (starring opposite Michelle Pfeiffer's Velma Von Tussle just makes it even more obvious). Thus the character of Edna not only subverts homosexual, bisexual and transsexual civil rights, but does so through the face of a macho male cinematic icon.
Travolta could have kept his performance in that one note, but the actor chooses to turn Edna into an excessively shy and self-defeating personality who emerges vicariously through the success of her daughter. All the blushing and self-pity can be grating at times, but in a climactic dance number with Mr. Turnblad (the always delightful Christopher Walken) Travolta really lets loose - showing off his well-known fancy footwork and finally giving the character some room to breathe.
The blossoming self-confidence of the overweight Turnblads is overtly linked to the gradual racial integration of the city around them. After being sent to detention for her huge hairstyle, Tracy becomes fast friends with Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) - a dancer on Corny Collin's monthly "Negro Day." The room is filled with other black kids, and as she interacts with them Tracy slowly comes to realize the inequities of segregation. If the movie belongs to Travolta, Kelley's dazzling performance as the charming and confident Seaweed necessitates the young actor receive a musical of his own sometime soon.
From there things move quickly towards resolution, and the abruptness of the finale is where the film finally loses its creative energy. The nature of the genre compels us to expect all plot lines to be succinctly and happily ended, but Hairspray does so in one hurried contrived dance marathon. Nevertheless it's impossible to walk out of Shankman's film with a frown. The prejudice-free interracial dancing, dating and friendship embraced so joyously on Corny Collin's TV show is the type of celebration that is bound to sweep almost anyone off their feet - even if, and perhaps because, it remains somewhat of a fantasy in the real world. SEE ALSO: www.hairspraymovie.com
Imran Siddiquee is a freelance writer pursuing self-expression in all its forms. This includes the occasional contribution to LAS as well as writing blogs, essays, short stories, an unpublished novel and some screenplays. He also creates horribly amateur music with his brother Yusuf.
See other articles by Imran Siddiquee.
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