Sunday, 20 May 2012

Hairspray (2007)

Dir. Adam Shankman
Starring: Nikki Blonsky, John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken 

And so from a John Waters film to a film based on a Broadway musical that is itself based on a John Waters film. 

With a cry of “Good Morning Baltimore!” we are introduced to Tracy Turnblad (a brilliant debut from Nikki Blonsky). It is 1962 and she lives for just one thing: the music and dancing on TV’s The Corny Collins Show. When the show announces that it is looking for a new dancer Tracy is determined to apply. The only problem is, she’s not the usual teenage pin up. She’s, well, almost as big as her beehive. And this is an era in which conformity is prized. Anyone different, be they Tracy with her extra baggage or Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah), host of the monthly ‘negro day’, is seen as a threat by station producer Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer, now all grown up from her previous appearance, in Scarface).  

The film, then, is – true to Waters’ vision – about not being afraid to be different. Tracy and her even larger mother Edna (played by John Travolta) find acceptance and self-belief. More inspiring is the move towards integration of the black community, whether it is the ending of segregated TV broadcasts or the budding romance between Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) and Penny (Amanda Bynes). The candlelit march to the TV station to the tune of 'I Know Where I’ve Been’ is the emotional core of the film, and is moving. In this, really only Velma, the police / security guards, the news networks that exaggerate Tracy’s brush with the law and Penny’s straitlaced and fundamentalist mother (The West Wing’s Allison Janney) are the bad guys. Even Velma’s daughter Amber (Brittany Snow) turns away from her mother at the film’s end. The TV show’s sponsor is willing to bend once he sees the way the wind is blowing and heart-throb Link (Zac Efron) looks out for his career and then regrets abandoning Tracy when she does the right thing. In comparison her joke-shop owning father (Christopher Walken) loves Edna whatever she looks like, as he expresses in the song ‘You’re Timeless to Me’. Corny Collins is an enthusiastic integrationist and Maybelle is colour-blind. And, as the end shows, the viewing teenaged audience have no racial prejudice.  

Okay, so the film shoots into an open goal. So what? It has a period setting for a reason – in the ‘60s there was a divide between black and white, and a lot of people supported that. Today the storyline is not shocking. In fact, Tracy is not even particularly fat; she is big-boned rather than obese. And the conceit of having Tracy’s mother being played by a man isn’t shocking either. In Water’s 1986 original drag-queen Divine played the role; 21 years later and it is Hollywood star John Travolta. The portrayal is not particularly controversial: Travolta plays Edna like a pantomime dame. If you’re British you will have seen something similar by your sixth Christmas. Still, he seems to be enjoying himself in women's dress (perhaps not surprisingly if one believes current news stories...). But the basic storyline and the central themes is still mostly that of Waters. Baltimore is seen as a haven of individuality, from the beehive hairdos to Wilbur’s Hardy Har Hut to the eccentric characters Tracy sees on her way to school (one of whom, “the flasher who lives down the street”, was played by Waters; the woman he exposes himself to is his long-time collaborator Mink Stole, who played Sylvia Mallory in Cecil B. Demented and Tammy in the original Hairspray). Other cameos from the original film include Jerry Stiller (Ben’s dad) who was the original Wilbur and now appears as Mr Pinky and Ricki Lake, the original Tracy (and who also appeared as Libby in Cecil B.) appears as a talent agent. 

Not so Divine: Travolta makes it big on the main drag

But it is not directly comparable to the original in one key respect: the nature of the film. It is not a quirky independent film with a limited budget; it is a big budget studio (uh-oh!) production of a glossy Broadway musical! It is big, bold, brash and bursting with energy. The colours are vivid, the characters stylized, the comedy obvious. And it is full of music and songs. And many of the songs are very good. As well as the aforementioned Good Morning Baltimore and I Know Where I’ve Been I also have to single out I Can Hear the Bells. And You Can’t Stop The Beat has become a modern classic. The music is often clever: witness the two different (white and black) versions of The New Girl in Town. And it is added to with good, well-choreographed dance routines. There’s comedy pitched at different levels – I appreciated Maybelle’s wry comments that “if we get anymore white people in here, this is going to be a suburb” or that whites have less to fear on black streets than blacks do on white streets, but I also appreciated Wilbur’s Whoopee Cushion air-mattress too. All in all it is a really entertaining crowd-pleaser. 

What have I learnt about Maryland?
Again with the seafood! Velma is a former ‘Miss Baltimore Crabs’. The initial shot shows Baltimore as a harbour city so maybe that’s no surprise. Baltimore also seems to be a city of terraced housing with corner-shops populated by eccentrics and individualists. The locals call each other “hon”. A lot. 

But most of all it depicts Maryland as a Southern state with open racial segregation and discrimination (interracial marriage was actually illegal in Maryland until 1967, so I hope Seaweed and Penny were not planning on settling down too quickly). 

Can we go there?
Like the original John Waters films, the setting is Baltimore. However only the first establishing shot of the city by the bay actually was Baltimore. The rest was Toronto and Hamilton in Canada. The intersection of Dundas Street West and Roncesvalles Avenue in Toronto was used for many of the street scenes. Lord Lansdowne Public School was used for all school exteriors and some interiors, with the remainder being shot at Hamilton’s Queen Victoria School. Other scenes took place on sets at Showline Studios. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

No comments:

Post a Comment