A cast that boasts the likes of John Travolta, Michelle Pfiefer, Christopher Walken and Queen Latifah is what movie dreams are made of – and John Water’s 2007 reboot of Hairspray doesn’t disappoint.
A remake of the Broadway show which in turn was based on the 1988 film (which flopped), Hairspray is a tongue in cheek take on the teen stars of the early 1960’s and the racism in the society they inhabited. Ironically, those teen stars being mocked are played largely by their modern day counterparts in the form of Zac Efron and Amanda Bynes. In amongst the Disney shininess enters the hero you didn’t know you needed – Tracey Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky). Obsessed with the dancers she watches on TV and not considered cool because she’s ‘fat’, Tracey is a sweet, innocent hero who fights tooth and nail for what she believes is right. She’s years ahead of her time when it comes to social justice – in a way.
Each character reveal throughout the film is a delight, from the pan up Travolta’s stocking covered legs to reveal Edna Turnblad, to Elijah Woodley’s twist round that introduces the character of Seaweed onto the screen. Every line that Travolta delivers is comic gold, something which not only comes from the writing (particularly when Edna claims that Jackie Kennedy doesn’t use hairspray, but that her hair is ‘naturally stiff’) but also the strange accent it’s all delivered in, particularly noticeable whenever she uses the word ‘iron’. Considering the film is Blonsky’s professional debut, it’s a stellar performance. The perfect amount of camp not only runs through her performance but through the entire film – never bordering on bawdy but still being frothy fun.
Tracey’s attempts to stop segregation simply by deciding to ignore the colours of people’s skin is a simplistic answer to a problem as systemic and far-reaching as the Jim Crow Laws. There are white saviour vibes to the film certainly, but the film is just about self-aware enough to save it. The white character’s naivety and ignorance is matched by the perfect aside from characters Seaweed or Motormouth Maybelle. The best of these comes when Tracey announces how scared she is to be at Motormouth Maybelle’s house. “Honey, we got more reason to be scared on your street” she replies, reminding a modern day audience just how little has changed.
What is so clever about this balance between froth and serious subject matter is that it plays with the concept of a teen musical, and how it is once removed from reality. The typical teenage themes of these films, and the idea that you just need some gumption to get through, is undercut by the reality of the situation. This is encapsulated perfectly by the opening song ‘Good Morning Baltimore’ where Tracy sings a celebration of the small town she lives in before riding a garbage truck to school. It’s a perfect indication of what’s to come in the rest of the film and sets the tone up perfectly; the audience’s way into the story is through someone wearing heavily rose tinted glasses.
There’s a thread throughout the film of the new age coming in, and with an early 1960’s setting, the whole thing feels like it’s teetering on an edge – change is coming, and it’s time to, as Tracey puts it “get up off your fathers lap” and fight for it.
And oh the music. It’s joyous and catchy, funny, musical theatre meets funk. The dance numbers are smartly filmed, with panning and rotating cameras that make you feel like you’re in the midst of the dance too. We see these dance numbers through multiple lenses and screens, on a TV behind a window in a shop to through the camera lens broadcasting it there. It’s smart reminder of how this revolution that the film portrays the beginnings of was one that was broadcast. The world watched the fight for change and the media was key to the revolution.
Plus, sometimes in life, you just need to watch John Travolta and Christopher Walken dance together. It just puts everything terrible going on in the world into perspective.