Hairspray (2007)

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Hairspray
Dir. Adam Shankman
Premiered July 13, 2007

I really wish I hadn’t wasted the Lindsay Ellis quote on Transformers, because if one film encapsulates recursive nostalgia, it is Hairspray. There we were in the 2000s, being nostalgic for the 80s, being nostalgic for the 60s (not to be confused with the much bigger, more nuanced wave of 1960s nostalgia in which we find ourselves now).

As far as I can tell, Hairspray is a divisive film. My roommate prefers the remake, my girlfriend prefers the original. One review I read claimed that it fulfilled John Waters’ lofty ambitions with an adequate budget, which suggests the reviewer had no familiarity whatsoever with John Waters’ career. Needless to say, I’m firmly of the opinion that Waters did it best, and I suspect most of you will feel the same.

Let’s talk about the original. In Baltimore in 1962, high schooler Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) dreams of performing as a dancer on the local music program The Corny Collins Show. Although she’s poor and overweight, her enthusiasm and skill get her on the air and win over her skeptical parents (Jerry Stiller and Divine), but her immersion into the local music scene also brings her onto the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement, leading her to run afoul of mean girl Amber Von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick) and her segregationist allies.

Of course, director John Waters was cashing in on the then-current wave of 1960s pop nostalgia, but he gave it a refreshingly personal touch; whereas most films of its kind pilfered memories of a bygone New York or California, Hairspray was inspired by Waters’ own teen years in Baltimore, imbuing both a sweetness and a satirical bite that the mainstream of Hollywood happily avoided.

The original Hairspray works because John Waters is just a cool, funny guy. Any remake that didn’t involve his creative vision would have been inferior, but it gets worse. The Hairspray of 2007 is, in the tradition of Mel Brooks’ The Producers, a film adaptation of a musical adaptation of the original, presided over by Adam Shankman, director of such films as The Wedding Planner, A Walk to Remember, Bringing Down the House, and The Pacifier.

Shankman’s involvement is hardly the only trade down. In place of the late, great drag queen Divine, or even her Broadway counterpart Harvey Fierstein, Tracy’s mother Edna is played by John Travolta, adding some Eddie Murphy prosthetics and a terrible Baltimore accent on top of his usual awkwardness; and whereas Jerry Stiller was born to play somebody’s dad, Christopher Walken wasn’t. The whole supporting cast is like that; while John Waters peppered his film with lots of unknowns, including actual teenagers, and a smattering of hipster icons, this version is distractingly star-studded.

As soon as the film started, I felt condescended to. The opening song “Good Morning Baltimore” establishes the setting as loudly and unnecessarily as possible. The original songs in general are typical 2000s-Broadway: canned, generic, forgettable. The story is similar: why have nuance and subtext when the movie can just tell you how to feel at a hundred decibels? I realize that this is a problem innate to musical adaptations, but the problem is there, and it hurts the film.

But it doesn’t stop there. In the 1988 film, Tracy is transferred into Special Ed, where they also send the black kids. In this version, they all just end up in detention. The original wasn’t exactly edgy in its depiction of the time period, so I’m genuinely surprised they found a way to sanitize the story without having stage mom Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) turn into a dragon for the climax. Furthermore, this film tries way too hard to make Tracy Turnblad sexy. All Ricki Lake needed was the character’s natural confidence and enthusiasm to shine, but Shankman can’t resist putting newcomer Nikki Blonsky in anachronistically subdued makeup and staring at her ass. It’s weird. Altogether, this version of Hairspray proves conclusively that Hollywood doesn’t remotely have John Waters’ balls.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Inasmuch as America in 2007 thought about racism at all, this is a pretty good indicator of how they did: with not-inappropriate snark, but as something firmly in the past, with the perpetrators portrayed as unthreatening cartoons (not that the 1988 movie is without hyperbole, but the racists in that movie feel a hell of a lot more real than anything here). Tracy’s hair is also fashionably deflated for the final number.

Additional Notes

  • Zac Efron is painfully out of place here as Link Larkin; he was pretty clearly hired because of his hype from High School Musical and looks like a theater geek at a Rocky Horror screening.

  • Counterpoint to the above: Elijah Kelley, who shines as Seaweed J. Stubbs, and makes “Run and Tell That” the best song of the bunch.

  • Poor James Marsden. The rare man who gets the “too pretty to be funny” treatment, he’d had to make a shadow career of playing the wrong side in every love triangle. Don’t worry, he’ll get his moment before the year is out, but he deserves more.

  • Several 1988 castmembers appear, but given the circumstances, it comes off more sad than cute.

How Did It Do?
Hairspray grossed $202.5 million against an alleged $75 million budget. It also received a galling 91% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, and you can see why when you read those reviews. The first one on the page, from NPR’s Bob Mondello, gives a pretty representative critique when he praises the film’s willingness to fully embrace the traditional musical format, in contrast to those like Chicago, Dreamgirls, or Once, which couch their musicality in some larger conceit. In doing this, Hairspray was able to appeal both to novelty and nostalgia.

Unbelievably, the film’s success led New Line to commission a wholly original sequel with Waters himself writing, Shankman coming back to direct, and with a desperately played-out premise about the 60s being An Important and Exciting Time. Even more amazingly, this only fell through because Travolta refused to do a sequel. Distributor New Line Cinema then played with the idea to adapt Waters’ other musical, Cry-Baby. However, New Line was, as we will later discuss with The Golden Compass, on the verge of bankruptcy as well as under heavy fire for fraudulent (but somehow still legal) accounting practices, so that went nowhere.

Next Time: Postal

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