If you don't like musicals, I can't guarantee that this perky and cheerfully optimistic film will do anything to convert you. As director Adam Shakman ("The Wedding Singer") admits, there's even more dancing and singing in this version of "Hairspray" than there was in the Broadway show--which, of course, to a former dancer-choreographer like him is the closest thing to heaven-on-earth. But I do think there's something here for people who aren't necessarily fans of musicals, if you're open to the notion. The music is catchy, but the characters are also fun to watch, and there's more nonstop energy from start-to-finish than any other musical (or movie) that comes to mind. Like the best action films, "Hairspray" doesn't let you relax for a minute. But the biggest surprise--and the thing that makes "Hairspray" more broadly appealing--is that this is an extremely funny film which also manages to be relevant.
I'll give you a test. If you like the opening sequence, you'll like the whole film, because it's all here--the cheerful chubby girl (Nikki Blonsky) for whom life is a song, the disconnect between her optimism and the way things are, the energy, the quirkiness, and the gags. This is the kind of film that doesn't just go for the big laughs. There are a lot of small ones, too, slipped into the dialogue and songs or planted among the props. As the alarm rings and Tracy Turnblad (Blonsky) rolls out of bed, she's already singing a full-out rousing version of "Good Morning, Baltimore" (I know, I know--you'd HATE to have this one for a roommate) and how wonderful it is to be a resident there in 1962. She turns on the TV and the show "Good Morning Baltimore" is on, and she continues to sing as she gets ready for school. She's still singing her joyful song as she walks to the bus stop and seems so oblivious that she bumps into pedestrians. You can't help but laugh--not just because it catches you as off-guard as those hapless commuters who stare at her as if to say, What's YOUR problem?, but also because the song she sings doesn't exactly match her surroundings.
Though Tracy's big hair, big heart, and big opening number make you think she's got lots to be thankful for, by the time the song ends we know how much of an optimist she really is. Tracy lives in a rundown corner apartment over the Hardy Harr Hut joke shop run by her father, Wilbur (Christopher Walken). Her mother (John Travolta, in drag and a fat suit) does laundry to help pay the bills. And while she's singing "Good Morning, Baltimore," she passes rats on the sidewalk. Is she creeped out? Nope. Like Snow White, she just keeps singing and pulls out some food to scatter among them. As she sings we also see a man in a trenchcoat flash a woman who screams, and an alcoholic already at his barstool, head clunking down. Then, as Tracy misses the bus because of her reverie, she doesn't skip a beat. She just flags down a garbage truck (again, there's that Huh? look from the driver), climbs aboard, and sings the rest of her song while riding to school on top of the dumpster. From that point, you know you're in for a quirky, high-energy ride.
What began in 1988 as a cult film by John Waters and then progressed to a Tony-winning Broadway show has evolved yet again into something even bigger and better. Don't let the title fool you. This isn't another "Barbershop" or "Beauty Salon" with tunes. The title comes from the product sponsor of a local version of Dick Clark's "American Bandstand"--The Corny Collins Show, which Tracy hopes one day to dance on. Everyone on the show has to have big hair and lots of hairspray holding it down, and there are strict rules of conduct--all based on a real Baltimore dance show hosted by Buddy Deane. That real-life show was on 20 days a month, with but one of those days designated "Special Guest Day." That was a euphemism, since Baltimore was still segregated in 1962. But in "Hairspray" they cheerfully sing on The Corny Collins Show how "Once a month we have Negro Day." That's another big source of humor. There's complete honesty here when it comes to race. Stereotypes aren't avoided--they're candidly embraced and incorporated into the gags. But the jokes aren't all about race. They're also about fat people, the Sixties, high school life, and sex. As station manager Velma von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) reminisces while auditioning new teen hopefuls for the show, the song she sings is "When I was Miss Baltimore Crabs." O-kay.
One of the questions that von Tussle asks to screen applicants is, "Would you swim in an integrated pool?" Naturally, the perky, naïve, born-to-be-right Tracy chips in with a cheerful "I sure would!" and she's denied her dream. Not to worry. The dancer she has a crush on, Link Larkin ("High School Musical"'s Zac Effron), likes her spunk and tells her about a second chance, making sure that she gets the opportunity to shine. She does, and soon the chubby thorn-in-the-side of von Tussle and the station owner (Paul Dooley) is the biggest hit on the show. Umm, pun intended.
As von Tussle conspires to get rid of her, Tracy is drawn into a conspiracy of her own. At school, she's been getting sent to detention, where (in a jab at racial profiling) she's the only white student in a room full of blacks. There, she bonds with them as they all dance to the newest "grooves," and Tracy decides to risk her shot at becoming Miss Hairspray on the show by saying on-air that if she were president, "I'd make every day Negro Day."
So begins the storyline that will push this fat-fable and integration-themed film to a satisfying conclusion. But you know what? The songs, Tracy's contagious optimism, and the incredible energy are so dominant that the "messages" slide down as easily as the half-eaten Snickers bar that Link finds under Tracy's pillow when he goes looking for her after she turns up missing.
The songs in this musical do so much that you hardly notice that there's relatively little in the way of actual dialogue and scenes. Those songs don't just advance the plot . . . they also incorporate humor and develop character. And there are plenty of characters here. Jerry Stiller ("King of Queens") has a small part as the owner of Mr. Pinky's Hefty Hideaway, a shop for plus-size women, while Allison Janney ("The West Wing") is hilarious as a hyper-Christian mom who even reads a book called something like "Jokes for Christians." Queen Latifah is as sassy as always as the guest DJ on "Negro Day," but it's not just the name actors that shine. The whole cast is phenomenal. If I have any complaints, it's that we sometimes remember that we're watching Travolta in a fat suit by the way he talks and acts. But you know what? He shakes it pretty well for a guy in drag, and watching him you can't help but smile.
In fact, no scene goes on for very long without the insertion of humor. Even when Tracy's best friend (Amanda Bynes) has been tied up by her Christian mother so she won't have anything more to do with the black boy she was seen kissing, when Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) has difficulty untying her he says, "Was your mama in the Navy?" It's bits like that, scattered throughout the film, that make "Hairspray" an unexpected delight.
This is the first Blu-ray from New Line, and it looks pretty darned good. The 1080p picture is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, with great color saturation and black levels and just the slightest bit of grain in soft-focus shots, which one suspects is also in the master. One thing I noticed, though, was that pressing "pause" and then restarting the film caused the movie to skip a bit so the sound and picture were out of synch. When I returned to Scene Selections and clicked there, everything was back to normal, no problem. Is it peculiar to a single disc or more, or is it the result of my Samsung BD-P1200 player (which seems to be having more problems than most)? I can't say at this point, but I did think it worth mentioning.
New Line has gone with DTS-HD Master Lossless Audio and, audiophiles will be happy to note that it's in 7.1 Surround. There's also a DTS 2.0 Digital Surround for electronics systems that can't handle the 7.1. Needless to say, the sound is as energetic and vibrant as the film itself. And the sound seems to come from everywhere, which again seems perfect for a film like this.
This is the "2-disc Shake & Shimmy Edition," with so many bonus features that it's an embarrassment of riches.
Disc One features five deleted or alternate scenes (including deleted song "I Can't Wait" and an alternate version of "You Can't Stop the Beat"), playable with or without commentary by Shankman and Blonsky, who also team up for a lively full-length commentary that's better than average. These two really developed a rapport, and it shows.
The best feature is a Blu-ray exclusive, "Behind the Beat," a picture-in-picture way to watch the film that offers a separate video stream that changes. As Tracy sings one song, for example, the PIP shows her in make-up, then in the studio singing at the microphone, and from different camera angles that weren't used in the film. It's a wonderful Blu-ray exclusive feature that gives you a whole new way to watch and appreciate a film like this. I loved it!
Also on this disc are "Hair Spray Extensions," which are behind-the-scenes looks at the six songs as they were filmed. These aren't just fly-on-the-wall single-camera cheapies. There's some thoughtful presentation here, with a number of split screens and multiple cameras. For those who want to actually learn some of the dances, two of them ("Ladies Choice" and "Peyton Place After Midnight") are taught by a dance instructor in a studio with a male on one side of him facing the back-wall mirror and a female on the other side facing forward, so you get views from both sides as you try to learn the routines. Rounding out the Disc One features is another full-length commentary, this one from producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who talk more about the technical aspects of production in a drier but more information-packed commentary. On this disc you can also choose a lyric track to sing along, or "jump to a song."
Disc Two has three short features clumped together under the heading "The Roots of Hairspray," and all three of them are fascinating. The first tells the story of "The Buddy Deane Show" and has interviews with all sorts of former dancers, whose remarks really add a dimension to our appreciation of the film. There's also a feature on John Waters' original "Hairspray" 1988 film starring Divine, Blondie, Sonny Bono, and Ricki Lake, with Lake appearing on camera in recent interviews. Lake was the first to play Tracy and also had a cameo in this film. The third short feature is "Hairspray on Broadway," another excellent one.
Then there's an extensive making-of feature grouped into short segments on the return, cost, music, choreography, costumes, hairdos, production design, and reflections. It turns out that they auditioned 2200 dancers, and so the entire process was exhausting. Shankman says, "What I recognized, in trying to see this thing through Tracy's eyes, is there was always going to be music and dancing going on constantly, because that was what Tracy has going on in her head constantly." It's Tracy's point-of-view that the film tries to capture, he says, and I can't put it any better.
"Hairspray" is a relentlessly cheerful musical that's also surprisingly moving and relevant. I haven't felt so upbeat and laughed out loud so much for a long time. Some people have been complaining on the boards about this being a disappointing title to launch New Line's Blu-rays, but what better way to debut than with a film that comes with its own fanfare?