Saturday, July 28, 2007

Reel To Reel: Hairspray

Let's see y'all groove to this!

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Nikki Blonsky, John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Queen Latifah
Rated: PG
Red Flags: One Or Two Naughty Words, One Or Two Suggestive Scenes

In the Hairspray universe of 1962 Baltimore, segregation is square, and not much more than that. No black and white restrooms or drinking fountains. No baton beatings, no Bull Connors -- just bad hair days. This sanitized version of the civil rights struggle fits neatly into a high-energy, high-gloss, poppy musical comedy about dreams and differences where out is the new in, and the sock hop cruises Motown.

Tracy Turnblad (Blonsky), a plump Pollyanna, has got as many moves as she does pounds. She longs to dance on the Corny Collins show, an American Bandstand clone that feels more like the Mickey Mouse Club with a beat and no concern for the ozone layer. Ah, but Mickey never had "Negro Day." Getting on television means something better than doing laundry like her bloated mother Edna -- played in drag by John Travolta as a nod to John Waters' 1988 original film and the Broadway production -- or running a gag shop like her father Wilbur (Walken).

When the call goes out for a new dancer, Turnblad quickly finds her girth disqualifies her. Mainly, though, it's the sneer of station manager Velma Von Tussle (Pfeiffer), so manipulative and waspy she could get stuck in a no-pest strip. Her equally tart daughter Amber (Brittany Snow) is a shoo-in to retain her crown of Miss Hairspray and lead dancer. A detention at school provides the back door, where Tracy meets Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) -- one of those "Negroes" who gives her a new groove. Corny catches some of that action when he sees Tracy dance at a hop, and she's on the tube with visions of stardom and kicking down the black-white barrier.

Hairspray is mostly music, and it rocks from the opening frames, seamlessly integrating sixties R&B with the teeny-bop of yesteryear. "Good Morning Baltimore," the opening number, is one of the film's strongest pieces, perfectly setting up Tracy's character as the sizable visionary. Nikki Blonsky carries this picture with gallons of infectious charm and genuineness, although I must admit bias because she reminds me of a wonderful person I work with. And yes, she does her own singing. John Travolta's dragged-out Edna is not played up more than a few required fat-suit jiggles. And Queen Latifah as Motormouth Maybelle, the record-store owner and "Negro Day" host, is simply flawless. Her performance of "I Know Where I've Been" is my favorite song of the movie.

People will apply the "feel-good" label to this film, perhaps disparagingly and unfairly. I say there's a natural feel-good that comes from films with wit, style, honest emotions and energy, and a forced feel-good from pictures with greeting-card sentiment and Hollywood plot machines. Musical comedy also has a way of massaging loaded subjects like race relations. And me, of all people, should know how dancing brings people together.

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