A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 88 – Hairspray (2007)

Hairspray (2007) – May 27th, 2010

While the years don’t match up, I’m going to just hope that Pleasantville isn’t too far from Baltimore and some time soon after that movie ends, the changes in Baltimore from Hairspray spread out into the suburbs. Wouldn’t that be nice? They could use some more music and dancing in that town anyhow and now that roads actually lead to and from it, Tracy Turnblad and the rest of the Corny Collins show kids could tour through. What? I’ve displayed my crossover imaginings before and this won’t be the last time. I promise.

It’s hard not to come out of this movie feeling upbeat and hopeful, so long as you don’t poke too hard at its premise. Not to be too much of a downer, but while progress has certainly been made when it comes to racism and sizeism, all is not a song and a dance away from a happy ending. Nasty shit still happens because people are still like Velma Von Tussle, convinced of their moral superiority because of how they look. I watch this movie and I think “Yeah! Go Tracy! Get on that stage! Go Inez! Show them you ladies can dance and be awesome and rock out!” and then I think “Shit. People would still give them both crap for presuming to think not just that they’re as good as the other young women on the stage, but that they’re better. Fuck.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if things worked the way they do in the movie? If pointing out that You Can’t Stop the Beat really did prove to people that the tide of change is something to dive into, not build a wall against? I wish it worked like that. And I can’t say the movie is entirely dismissive of the difficulties inherent in its message. It’s just that it’s a positive vibe sort of movie. It wants you to be happy and optimistic. I’m not that optimistic a person, alas. But I’ll try. Because it’s a good movie, and it doesn’t deserve me spewing pessimism all over it. Not when it really does have a great message that I truly like.

Now, this is a remake, but I haven’t seen the original, so I’m not going to be reviewing it from that perspective. I haven’t seen the Broadway production either, so scratch that too. But I am thrilled to know just how much was carried over and how many nods to the original there are. Some cast members kept and moved into new roles (Jerry Stiller, for example) and the closing credits has a number performed by all three actresses who’ve played the lead, Tracy (Nikki Blonsky, Marissa Jaret Winokur and Ricki Lake). Those are great little things that let you know that the people making the movie were paying attention not just to their own production. One reason we watched this tonight is that tonight was the premier of the latest season of So You Think You Can Dance, and this movie was directed and choreographed by one of the judges, Adam Shankman. We hadn’t realized that and were thrilled (the other option was Showgirls, which another of the show’s choreographers is in).

Truth to tell, there are a lot of great things about the movie. Not just the message and the choreography (which I love). But I realize I haven’t talked about the message yet, so let’s do that. Tracy Turnblad, a teenager with a dream of being on a dance show on television, is also heavier than is acceptable for such things. But that doesn’t get her down. She just knows she’s going to make it somehow. With the help of her friend Penny (whose character arc I adore) and some of the African American students Tracy’s met in detention, she dances her way into the good graces of the host of the show, Corny Collins. Before I continue, this movie is full of bizarrely perfect casting. James Marsden as the slick Corny Collins? Who knew, right? But perfect. Amanda Bynes as Penny? Yeah, she’s perfect too. Allison Janey as her uptight churchgoing mother isn’t such a stretch, but I love Allison Janey in everything I’ve seen her in so I don’t care. Anyhow, Tracy gets on the show, which is fantastic, but she also earns the enmity of the show’s lead dancer, Amber, and her mother, Velma, neither of whom want this short fat pro-integration optimist to come crashing their party. So they try to sabotage her, of course. And one of the things they do is to cancel “Negro Day”, a once a month rhythm and blues day, leading to Tracy marching with the host of Negro Day (Motormouth Maybelle, played, again awesomely, by Queen Latifah) and a large group of people she’s met through her friends from detention and Maybelle. A confrontation with the police during the march leads to Tracy hiding out and then sneaking into the Corny Collins show’s climactic Miss Hairspray dance-off, during which the cast becomes integrated and Penny makes out with OMG an African American man! Maybelle’s daughter, Inez, wins Miss Hairspray and Tracy’s mother and father (played by John Travolta and Christopher Walken, respectively and perfectly – yes, perfectly) get on stage and dance too.

Everyone dances. Everyone’s dancing with someone of another size or another race and everyone’s singing about change and Tracy gets the boy she’s had eyes for the whole movie (the show’s male lead, Link, again perfectly played by Zac Efron, who I don’t think I’d ever thought I’d write those words about). Maybelle and Corny are up hosting together and the whole thing says that your size and shape and race shouldn’t keep you from doing and achieving what you want. But not only shouldn’t your differences stop you, they should be loved and appreciated. Not once in the movie is it put forth that Tracy would be a better dancer if she was tall and skinny. She’s amazing just the way she is and Link likes her as she is. Not once does the movie want you to think that the music would really be better if it was whiter. Just the opposite. The whole point of the movie is to embrace the unfamiliar and the different and let your life be richer for it. And it’s set in 1962. It’s 2010. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do that?

May 27, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hairspray (2007 musical)

May 27, 2010

Hairspray (2007 musical)

“People who are different? Their time is coming!” So declares Tracy Turnblad- the heroine of today’s return to the exciting fantasy Baltimore of John Waters. Just like Crybaby this is a musical tale of misfits finding their place in the world. We don’t own the original Hairspray movie (although I can tell you we certainly will!) Instead today we review the 2007 movie of the Broadway musical based on the movie. Much from the original movie has changed (gone is the climactic set-piece about the bomb that has been planted in the hairdo of Tracy’s rival) but the core premise of the improbable meteoric rise to stardom of an overweight but infectiously upbeat girl remains. In the alternate Baltimore of John Waters you can’t keep a great girl like Tracy down.

This hairspray tells the story of Tracy Turnblad – a Baltimore teenager at the start of the sixties who watches the Corny Collins dance program every day on local daytime television and does nothing else. Naturally she finds her way onto the program, falls in love with the lead dancer and heartthrob Link, and through a series of well meaning adventures brings about a confrontation on the program with the underhanded and racist producer Velma. Velma wants to keep the show pure and white. Tracy feels that it’s unfair not to have black people dancing in an integrated show. It all leads to chaos at the climactic live broadcast of the Miss Teenage Hairspray dance competition. And of course along the way there are a ton of great musical numbers and big dance scenes.

The biggest difference between this musical and the original movie is in the tone. In 1988 John Waters was still doing what he enjoys doing most- trying to get a rise out of people by filming outrageous things and passing them off as normal. In the original movie (as I remember it at least – this could change when we get to our dedicated review of it) the interracial couples and integration felt like it was put in the movie to shock you. In this movie it is seen as inevitable, like the rising of the tide. Has public perception of integration changed so much in the intervening twenty years? I’m not sure that it has. Certainly it doesn’t appear to to me, but I live in a fairly isolated bubble of extreme liberalism and always have. Maybe attitudes have changed.

I will say that when I first watched this movie I was extremely moved by the “I Know Where I’ve Been” number with its civil rights overtones. Queen Latifah’s performance never fails to make me tear up. But I couldn’t help feeling like this was too easy a thing to do now. Is there any controversy to integration and civil rights any more? I mean, we live in a United States with a black president now. Surely we already live in a colorblind society and there’s less power to this kind of scene because of it. But then again, just this past week Rand Paul, a Republican Senate candidate from Kentucky, has said some dumb things about civil rights, and there’s the whole hullabaloo in Arizona regarding immigrants there which is turning into a race issue as well. So perhaps from my ivory tower I can delude myself into believing that the race problem has been resolved, when clearly it has not. We live in the future, yes, but all is not yet as it should be. So this movie IS still relevant today.

Let’s talk casting. This movie has a brilliant group of performers embodying the people of Baltimore. Christopher Walken gets a chance to show off his dance movies and is also wonderfully cheesy as Tracy’s joke-store-operating father. (His patented oddly paced delivery works well with his character.) Queen Latifah, although her part is fairly small as Motormouth Maybelle, the host of “Negro Day” the once-a-month all colored dance segment on the Corny Collins show, provides a lot of the heart and (if you’ll forgive the pun) soul of the movie. Michelle Pfeiffer makes a fantastic nefarious evil-doer (as seen in Stardust as well.) James Marsden continues to surprise me. As Corny Collins here he gets to sing, dance and smarm (although I fear that he may be typecast as the clean-cut all-American guy.) Teen appeal is provided by High School Musical’s Zac Efron and Amanda Bynes. Of course Nikki Blonsky brings so much fun to the movie as the irrepressible Tracy that it’s infectious.

The one casting choice I was most concerned about when I first began to hear about the film adaptation was that of John Travolta as Tracy’s mother Edna. I mean, yes we all know that John can sing and dance, but he’s taking the role away from the drag queens who created it. In the original film it was of course John Waters’ favorite transvestite Divine in the role, and then the original Broadway stage cast had the legendary Harvey Fierstein take over. It seemed crude to have a big-name Hollywood star camping it up in the place of a dedicated transvestite. Still, I will admit that Travolta does a good job with the part, and seems to be having fun doing it. I don’t begrudge him the role… I would think anybody would enjoy having it. He even lampoons his own celebrity- aping one of his Pulp Fiction dance moves during the closing number.

I enjoy this movie for a number of reasons. It’s got a fantastic soundtrack (which lives on my iPod and is frequently listened to when I need a lift.) It’s got amazing big Broadway dance numbers (choreographed and directed as my Wife is no doubt pointing out in her review by So You Think You Can Dance’s Adam Shankman.) The casting is first rate and the joy of the movie is undeniable. And it has a nice social message which shouldn’t be relevant in our new enlightened age but sadly still is. Most of all it’s just fun to watch.

May 27, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment