HAIRSPRAY - DVD review

...how can you not like a movie in which John Travolta and Christopher Walken sing a love song to each other? And you believe it!

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

John Waters has always championed the underdog in his eccentric little movies, and "Hairspray" is no exception. Waters originally created the film in 1988, then with other people adding music it went on to Broadway, and finally we got the musical film version in 2007. In essence, it took the same route as Mel Brooks's "Producers," only I think this newest "Hairspray" is even more successful than Brooks's effort. "Hairspray" starts on a high note and never comes down. If it has any fault at all, it's that it hardly takes a minute to breathe and leaves one rather exhausted by the end from laughing and toe-tapping. Not a bad way to spend a couple of hours, you know?

"Hairspray" celebrates diversity and does so in lively song and dance. It celebrates diversity of race, sex, opinion, and physique. As Waters himself says on one of the documentaries, folks probably discriminate as much against overweight (he says "fat") people as much as they discriminate against blacks or gays or any other minority (an exaggeration, to be sure, but he likes to make a point). For instance, he says, the overweight girl never gets the boy in a movie. So he decided to make a film about an overweight girl who does win the day and get the boy. "Hairspray" does so with high good humor, and while it inflates its ideas, even to the point of corniness, it's the way it's meant to be. Overstatement rules in this movie, and I for one wouldn't want it any other way.

Director Adam Shakman ("The Wedding Singer," "Cheaper By the Dozen 2") takes Waters' ideas and characters and the Broadway musical's songs and dances and fashions the best version of the story yet. Really. Even if you don't like musicals, if this one doesn't get your blood pumping, you're dead.

The setting is Baltimore, Maryland, 1962, and most of the characters are teenagers in high school. Apparently, those of us who graduated from high school in 1962 were unaware of the magic of that period as it was happening, a magic both Waters in "Hairspray" and George Lucas in "American Graffiti" capture in their films. It was the end of an era, a time just before the advent of full racial integration, women's lib, Vietnam, the mistrust of government, the sexual revolution, the British music invasion, the hippie movement, and so much more that was to change the course of American life. In "Hairspray" Waters tried to hint at these coming changes and poke fun at the more conservative ethic of the day.

Understand, the movie is practically all music and dance. The script uses dialogue only sparingly to connect the musical numbers. So things start right out with the main character, Tracy Trunblad (Nikki Blonsky), a cute, bubbly, round teenager, missing the bus and heading for high school on the back of a garbage truck, all the while singing her heart out. It's one of the best sequences in the show, and the movie maintains that standard. Tracy may not fit everyone's image of the all-American girl, but she faces life confident of herself and unafraid.

Then we meet the secondary characters: Tracy's best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes); Penny's uptight religious-zealot mother, Prudy (Allison Janney); and Tracy's mom and dad, Edna and Wilbur. It's in the casting of the parents that the movie shows more of its brilliance. John Travolta in a fat suit plays Edna, and he does so convincingly. We perhaps occasionally recognize the voice, but otherwise we see in his performance as effective an acting job as Divine (Harris Glen Milstead) did in the original. Similarly unlikely, Christopher Walken plays Wilbur, the dad; wearing hopelessly old-fashioned, see-through seersucker shirts, he is endearingly sweet and charming. Edna is obese and has never left the house in ten years for fear of someone seeing her; and Wilbur is a dorky sort who owns a joke shop, the Hardy-Har Hut. Yet they are the most loving and supportive parents a kid could want, and when Tracy decides to audition for a part on the local TV dance program, "The Corny Collins Show," the father especially couldn't be happier. Forget about the fact that you're overweight, he tells her; go for it. Which she does, and you can guess the result.

James Marsden plays Corny Collins, the host of the dance show, patterned after a real TV program in Baltimore at the time called "The Buddy Deane Show," which itself was a hometown version of Dick Clark's "American Bandstand." (Clark has always been proud of the fact that he was among the first people to integrate such a show racially.) In yet another brilliant performance, Michelle Pfeiffer plays Velma Von Tussle, the Witched-Witch general manager of the television station. Velma is a former Miss Baltimore who is everyone's idea of the clichéd white snob. She only wants singers and dancers on "The Corny Collins Show" who are young, white, beautiful, and slim. For Tracy, three out of four isn't good enough ("I want that chubby Communist girl off the show!"). However, Velma does concede to having a single program each week called "Negro Day," during which the show uses black singers and dancers. It's just that many of the white folks in town consider any rock-and-roll as "race music," so it's a grudging concession.

Other supporting players round out a top-notch cast: Brittany Snow is Velma's attractive, conceited clone of a daughter, Amber Von Tussle; Zac Efron is Link Larkin, the teenage singing star of the dance show and Tracy's seemingly hopeless romantic interest; Paul Dooley is Mr. Spritzer, the show's sponsor; Queen Latifah in one of her best roles is Motormouth Maybelle, hostess of the show's Negro Day; Elijah Kelley is Seaweed, Maybelle's son; and Jerry Stiller is Mr. Pinky, owner of Mr. Pinky's Hefty Hideaway, a clothing store for large people, who wants Tracy as a spokesperson for his establishment.

Sure, the movie overdoes and stereotypes the thematic material, but it does so on purpose. And, sure, the ending goes on much too long and gets a bit too schmaltzy. But the characters are so appealing, even the evil ones like Velma and her daughter, and there is such a high level of energy, it's all hard to resist.

Besides, there are the songs to consider: "Good Morning, Baltimore"; "Nicest Kid in Town"; "It Takes Two"; "The Legend of Miss Crabs"; "I Can Hear the Bells"; "Ladies Choice"; "The New Girl in Town"; "Welcome to the '60s"; "Run and Tell That"; "Big, Blonde and Beautiful"; "Timeless to Me"; "I Know Where I've Been"; "Without Love"; "Hairspray"; "Come So Far"; and "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now." For me, "Good Morning, Baltimore," "Big, Blonde and Beautiful," and "Timeless to Me" are worth all the rest of the picture.

And there are the lines, not many because it is, after all, mostly music, but a few are priceless. Talking to another teenage friend, Link says after an English class studying Shakespeare, "I get who Caesar is, but what's the ideas of March? I mean, how can a month have an idea?"

Finally, how can you not like a movie in which John Travolta and Christopher Walken sing a love song to each other? And you believe it! I understand Mel Brooks is adding music to "Young Frankenstein" and bringing it to Broadway. Can a musical of John Waters' "Pink Flamingos" be far behind?

Video:
The disc transfer is about as good as it can be in standard definition. The video engineers reproduce the film's 2.35:1 theatrical ratio in a reasonably high-bit-rate anamorphic widescreen. The film is colorful without being overly bright or gaudy, or at least no more so than most films of the '60s were. What's more the filmmakers often purposely put the primary actors into sharp contrast with background characters and settings. Object delineation is nevertheless quite good for all screen depths, facial hues are realistic, and grain and noise are non issues.

Audio:
The disc provides two audio formats, Dolby Digital EX 5.1 and DTS-ES 5.1 (the latter not available on the single-disc SD edition). Bass is slightly more prominent than I prefer, but it's appropriate for the music of the day, a little juke boxy, actually. More important, the sound is exceptionally dynamic, with great impact and sharp focus, yet quite natural, too. The front-channel stereo spread is wide, and one notices a pleasant ambient bloom in the surrounds. Well done.

Extras:
The first disc in this two-disc set contains the feature film, two audio commentaries, and a slew of other extras. The commentaries are by director Adam Shankman and star Nikki Blonsky in the one case and producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron in the other. The director and star make a livelier team, although the producers go into more serious detail. Then we have some thirty-six minutes of "Hairspray Extensions," alternative views of the dance numbers in either rough cuts, rehearsals, or finished products; a "Jump to a Song" selection; and "Step-by-Step Dance Instructions" for several key numbers.

Things on disc one conclude with twenty scene selections but no chapter insert; Sneak Peeks at several other New Line releases, including an extended trailer for "The Golden Compass"; English as the only spoken language; and English and Spanish subtitles.

Disc two contains a pair of documentaries, five deleted scenes, and a theatrical trailer. The first documentary, "The Roots of Hairspray: From Buddy Deane to Broadway," is thirty-nine minutes long and takes you on a history of the movie's beginnings. The second documentary, "You Can't Stop The Beat: The Long Journey of Hairspray," is seventy-eight minutes and covers the cast, the music, the costumes, the hairdos, and most other facets of the movie's production. The deleted scenes, which include a never-before-seen musical number, "I Can Wait," and the "Hairspray" trailer are all in anamorphic widescreen.

The folks at New Line have made "Hairspray" available in standard definition and Blu-ray, with an HD DVD coming as soon as the movie ends its run in Europe. The SD edition reviewed here comes in a handsomely decorated, partially transparent, plastic slipcover.

Parting Thoughts:
The Wife-O-Meter was smiling throughout most of "Hairspray," and she's the world's toughest critic. I don't think I need to add another word to her visual evaluation. See the movie and smile.

"People who are different, their time is coming." --Nikki Blonsky, "Hairspray"

Ratings

Video
9
Audio
9
Extras
9
Film Value
8