What didn’t work for “The Producers” does for “Hairspray.” For Mel Brooks the movie-to-Broadway musical-to-movie ended with a bomb. For John Waters the trajectory is all uphill. His 1988 “Hairspray” was a probably his most mainstream picture, but it was still a demented, free-wheeling send-up of both message movies and teen flicks—the plot was about the move led by a chubby teen dancer to integrate a local “American Bandstand”-style show in 1962 Baltimore—that was too edgy and weird for most viewers. In turning it into a Broadway musical, writers Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan and songsmiths Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman softened things considerably and jettisoned lots of subplots and its more oddball elements, and the show’s become a staple, playing in New York for five years and touring widely. Now scripter Leslie Dixon and director-choreographer Adam Shankman have added a further coating of sweetness and light in bringing that show to the screen. The result is a lively, ebullient crowd-pleaser that replaces satiric spark with sitcom slickness, but is still good, clean fun.
Tracy Turnblad, the wide-eyed, wide-hipped heroine, is played by newcomer Nikki Blonsky, who brings infectious zest to the big-haired high-schooler who’s obsessed with the teen dance show that’s hosted by Corny Collins (ever-smiling James Marsden, who shows himself a good singer-dancer) but controlled by abrasive, arrogant station manager Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer, channeling Cruella De Vil). Not by chance the show’s stars are Velma’s daughter Amber (properly nasty Brittany Snow), a mean girl classmate of Tracy’s, and Amber’s Elvis-y boyfriend Linc Larkin (an engaging turn from “High School Musical” heartthrob Zac Efron), whom Tracy adores from afar.
Tracy’s good-natured dad Wilbur (Christopher Walken, playing his sad-sack card), proprietor of the joke shop they live above, doesn’t mind his daughter’s obsession, but her mother Edna (John Travolta, extravagant in fat suit and drag), a long-suffering laundress who wants her to follow in her large footprints, opposes it when Tracy announces her intention to try out for the dance troupe. But she changes her tune when Tracy’s chosen for the group, and eventually leaves the house after ten years’ isolation to become her agent.
The key to Tracy’s success are the new moves she learned while in detention from amazing black hoofer Seawood (charismatic Elijah Kelley), the son of Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah, curiously subdued), a record-store owner who hosts the Collins program’s once-a-month Negro Day. And once she’s a star of the show, Tracy—a dreamy Kennedy liberal in full mode—is appalled that the black dancers continue to be segregated in a monthly ghetto, and that the thought of blacks and whites dancing together is considered inappropriate; and to the horror of the Von Tussles, Linc not only gravitates to her position, but to Tracy as well. Before long she’s marching with her new friends to agitate for integrating the show, a stand that endangers her chance to win the Miss Hairspray trophy that Amber’s won for years—with her mother’s underhanded help. The contest provides the stage for a big, high-spirited finale that ends just as you’d want it to.
Unlike the original, this “Hairspray” gives the whole pro-integration plot a heavily inspirational tone, going for an uplifting feel alien to Waters’ approach. And Shankman aims throughout for a mood of feel-good innocence. The result has a naivete that mimics that of movies actually made in the sixties—an example of truly affectionate nostalgia—rather than Waters’ air of bemused detachment. The score is a good simulacrum of the pop music of the period, too—nearly wall-to-wall early bubble-gum rock, not terribly distinctive but pleasant and undemanding, and allowing for lots of high-spirited terpsichore that Shankman, a choreographer himself, stages with verve. (The one exception is Edna and Wilbur’s duet “Timeless to Me,” a kind of mobile update of “I Remember It Well” from “Gigi,” featuring more traditional dance moves that Travolta and Walken relish.)
The whole cast throws itself into the good times—including, in addition to those already mentioned, Amanda Bynes as Tracy’s best friend; Allison Janney as her fanatically religious mother; Jerry Stiller as “large-size” women’s clothier Mr. Pinky; Paul Dooley as the station owner; and Taylor Parks as Seaweed’s equally limber little sister—and mostly to fine effect. There are bits that just don’t come off—an episode in which Velma tries to seduce the uncomprehending Wilbur falls flat, and some of the topography of the action in the finale is muddy—but overall the cast and Shankman work together to keep things bright and bubbly.
Add to the mix a candy-colored production courtesy of designer David Gropman, art director Dennis Davenport, set decorator Gordon Sim and costumer Rita Ryack, and you’ve got a movie that’s like a cinematic box of sugary bonbons—light on nutrition, perhaps, but delectable.