Friday, July 27, 2007

Hairspray on Screen: Movie Musicals Were Once This Good

Movie Review

After we saw Singing in the Rain when it came to Santa Rosa in the fifties, on our way home my sister Kathy literally danced down near-vacant Santa Rosa Avenue while my enchanted mom hummed along. Such was the effect a film could have on one during the golden age of movie musicals.

Something happened that silenced the magic. Call it the sixties. Rock music in its primitive form had not yet been harnessed to serve dramatic narrative. And a new generation decided not to patronize characters suddenly “bursting into song.” In recent years, yet more good and earnest attempts to revive the screen musical have given us the ambitious if belabored Chicago and the simply morose, overly long Dreamgirls.

At last, a new day is here. I have just witnessed a rebirth of the older fashioned movie musical, and it is called Hairspray. What a transcendent experience, it felt as if I were back in the ‘50s merely watching a recent Broadway hit turned into the kind of movie musical that once sent us out of the theatre on a high. In fact, compared to the national touring company of Hairspray, which left me only mildly impressed, the movie is almost every step of the way a superior achievement. From cast to choreography, from camera angles to clever juxtapositions not possible on stage, Hairspray has it. Has there ever been a movie musical that improved on the Broadway show?

Not that Hairspray is a perfect work. A few sequences drag a bit, but always what follows is so good, you are soon enough back with the plan, and it’s a major blast. This musical not only amuses, it also inspires. After all, we are talking the early-days of the civil rights era. Young overweight white girl Tracy, played infectiously by Nikki Blonsky, is smitten with black music and puts her courage on the line to join a protest calling for the integration of a local teenage rock and roll tv show.

The marvel of Hairspray, which may be a put off to some, is that it is so old fashioned in construction. And that’s the trade off we must accept. In order for its numerous highlights to shine, they need the older-fashioned structure to give them life. Director-choreographer Adam Shankman deserves an academy award for merging so many elements into a cinematic joy.

The casting is brilliant. No, make that inspired. Michelle Pfeiffer, as a wickedly conniving TV station manger out to advance the career of her not-talented daughter, is endlessly entertaining. Christopher Walken as Wilbur, Tracy’s dad, is an absolute treasure as the thin husband to his overly fat wife, Edna. Which brings us to the movie’s major surprise — the flat-out sensational performance turned in by John Travolta playing Edna. Unlike too many campy New York drag queens, Travolta plays the role realistically, and he infuses his (excuse me “her”) character with genuine charm and warmth. He dances, too, and at the show I attended here in Oakland, he drew applause. In fact, he was the obvious favorite.

What Hairspray has in its favor is a “rock” score, however you wish to characterize the sort of rock it is. It can engage today’s younger audiences like the songs of golden age musicals can not. Time moves on, doesn’t it. Maybe a little too long, maybe a little plodding here and there, still, Hairspray’s assets are in the spades, and they are likely to set this movie apart as one for the ages. Academy Awards? Put the name of John Travolta at the top of the list.

[photo above: John Travolta, left, and Nikki Blonsky]


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