As a fan of John Waters' 1988 satire "Hairspray," I was a bit leery when I heard that the recent Broadway musical adaptation was to be made into a feature film. It was the same feeling one gets when any beloved film is remade, that the new version will not live up to the original and will somehow taint its reputation—and let's face it, the recent attempt to revive the Hollywood musical has not been tremendously successful. However, from the opening number of this new film, my fears were quickly alleviated. Director Adam Shankman has fashioned an adaptation that stands apart from the original film with its own charisma and charm, going far beyond my own preconceived notions.
Like the original, the new "Hairspray" is set in Baltimore (John Waters' home town) in 1962, where plump and perky teenager Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) dreams of making it on "The Corny Collins Show," a local TV dance program that features the most popular kids in town twisting and shimmying to the current hits, à la "American Bandstand." With lollipop-sucking best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes), Tracy pines over hunky council member Link Larkin (Zac Efron) and scoffs at his snobby girlfriend Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow), whose mother happens to be the TV station manager. The girls get their opportunity when the dance committee holds open auditions, but Tracy is turned away because of her weight and her pro-integration views. When she steals the show at a hop with her remarkable dancing, she is quickly made a "Corny Collins" council member, becoming the starlet of Baltimore and the role model for every girl in town, not to mention the new apple of Link's eye.
Tracy's newfound fame also brings in an unexpected surge of pleasure for her parents, Edna and Wilbur (John Travolta and Christopher Walken). Edna, a heavyset woman who has not left the house in years, is reintroduced to society—and the 60s—with a spiffy makeover, while customers flock to Wilbur's novelty-gift store (amusingly called Hardy Har Hut) to buy official Tracy memorabilia, including whoopee cushions. Not so ecstatic is Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer), Amber's manipulative mother who will go to any length to make her daughter the star attraction and to ensure that "The Corny Collins Show" remains racially segregated. Her endeavors are challenged by Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah), a popular black disc jockey who organizes demonstrations to promote racial integration. Trouble strikes for Tracy, however, when she eagerly joins Maybelle's cause and consequently finds herself on the run from the law and at odds with Link, who is reluctant to protest segregation for fear of damaging his reputation.
The film obviously carries over much of the social commentary from John Waters' original version, though it is not dealt with quite as frankly or subversively here as it was before. In general, this musical strives more for a broader, PG-oriented audience (that Waters' version was rated PG was a remarkable achievement for him at the time), but the filmmakers have still managed to slip in a few eyebrow raisers, including some off-color stabs at 1960s glamorization of smoking and drinking, and Zac Efron's suggestive number, "Ladies' Choice." Some of Waters' more politically incorrect material has also been toned down. In his film, the black students at Tracy's school are relegated to special ed, while in this version they are just sent to detention.
To compare and contrast the two versions, however, really does a disservice to both as they each contain their own pleasures. In the case of Shankman's film, the songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman reign supreme. From Tracy's opening "Good Morning Baltimore" to the rousing finale "You Can't Stop the Beat," the musical numbers burst with energy, expertly capturing the flavor of early 1960s pop. A couple of real standouts, in addition to those mentioned, are Queen Latifah's soulful and poignant "I Know Where I've Been" and Travolta and Walken's sweetly touching "(You're) Timeless to Me." There is not a bad number in the bunch, and each is energetically performed by a fabulous cast.
Down the line, every role has been filled to perfection. Though I was at first uncertain about John Travolta's casting as Edna (a role that has always been played by a man, beginning with the legendary Divine in 1988), he won me over by the film's end. His performance is unique and oddly endearing. He wisely chose not to emulate Divine or any of the previous actors who have played the role, bringing instead an unexpected warmth and realism to Edna that is matched wonderfully by Christopher Walken's lightly eccentric turn as Wilber. As Velma, Michelle Pfeiffer creates a villain you absolutely love to hate, melding the sexy slinkiness she once brought to Catwoman with her fine musical abilities that have shamefully been used too infrequently. The rest of the adult roles are filled out colorfully by Queen Latifah, James Marsden as Corny Collins, and the always welcome Allison Janney, who is appropriately high strung as Penny's mother Prudy.
In the lead, newcomer Nikki Blonsky makes a phenomenal film debut. She boldly holds her own alongside her famous co-stars, displaying an impressive self-assuredness in front of the camera. As most of the story rides on her shoulders, the film simply would not work without her conviction, and she carries it well with her booming voice and bubbly disposition. Her enthusiasm is shared by the other young stars of the film. Amanda Bynes and Elijah Kelley (as Maybelle's son) have especially good chemistry together—and some of the best lyrics—as the movie's sole interracial couple.
On a purely visual level, the film pops with color, bright costumes, and of course, towering hair. As the title suggests, hairspray flies freely throughout. For all of the flamboyance, however, the dancing and performing are always kept front and center. While many current musicals resort to frenetic editing that does more to distract and disorient the viewer, we are constantly drawn to the characters rather than the filming techniques. Like any good stage show, this is the actors' showcase, and the acting, singing, and dancing are what ultimately make the movie such a joy to watch. It is the epitome of summer movie entertainment.
"Hairspray" is brought to DVD by New Line Home Entertainment in a 2.35:1 widescreen anamorphic transfer that does full justice to Shankman's vision. Every flamboyant costume, set, and accessory is rendered vividly in a crisp and sharp transfer. Black levels are solid, and there are absolutely no signs of grain or digital compression. Flesh tones look natural throughout. The image retains a smooth and polished look awash in bright colors. Very well done.
The audio is by no means given short shrift either, presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, DTS 6.1, and stereo surround. The 5.1 track makes great use of surround sound, distributing the music and background noises appropriately to emulate the musical atmosphere. Voices and dialogue are consistently clear and discernable, while the music is pumped out dynamically with excellent results. English and Spanish subtitles are provided.
New Line has released the film in alternate single-disc and double-disc editions. The two-disc special edition is loaded with extra features, beginning with two screen-specific audio commentaries. The first is provided by director Adam Shankman and star Nikki Blonsky. They are clearly having fun reminiscing about their experiences and fawning over their co-stars. It's a fun track, but it is a bit lacking in solid information. Fortunately, the second commentary with producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron takes a more professional approach, providing more factual information about the production, casting, and backing of the film.
Also on disc 1, you will find "Hair Extensions," a selection of musical numbers from the film intercut with behind-the-scenes, rehearsal, and recording footage. These additions demonstrate exactly how much work went into these numbers to make them look so effortless onscreen. The screen is often broken into separate frames so we can see the rehearsal, the behind-the-scenes footage, and the final product at the same time.
This is followed by "Step by Step: The Dances of Hairspray," a 13-minute instructional featurette with two of the film's choreographers teaching two dances. Rounding out disc 1 is a "Jump to a Song" feature that takes you directly to each musical number in the film. This is accompanied by an optional sing-along track that brings up the lyrics for each song.
Disc 2 starts off with the 39-minute "The Roots of Hairspray," a trio of featurettes looking at the productions that inspired the new film. The first highlights "The Buddy Dean Show," the 1960s Baltimore dance program that served as John Waters' primary influence for "The Corny Collins Show." Photos from the show are displayed throughout while former council members grant interviews. The second featurette looks at the original film, featuring interviews with John Waters, Ricki Lake (the original Tracy), and other crew members. The Broadway musical is the subject of the last feature, boasting interviews with the writers, lead actress, and others instrumental in its production.
The most extensive supplement is "You Can't Stop the Beat: The Long Journey of Hairspray," a 78-minute making-of documentary that covers every conceivable aspect of the film, from the casting and music to the production design and costumes. Interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, and clips are interspersed throughout. At times, this can be a bit on the self-congratulatory side, but it manages to be both informative and entertaining.
Up next are five deleted and extended scenes, collectively lasting around nine minutes. The most interesting of these is a deleted musical number, "I Can Wait," performed by Nikki Blonsky. There is optional audio commentary from Shankman and Blonsky for these, basically continuing their cheerful reminiscing from the feature commentary. This is followed by a theatrical trailer.
In addition to all of this, New Line has included some extra features for those with DVD-ROM capabilities, providing an interactive viewing experience with photos, a live transcript, and quick access to bonus features during the film.
On almost every level, "Hairspray" surpasses expectations and is probably one of the best studio musicals to come out in years. It evokes the spirit of classical Hollywood musicals with high energy and a relaxed attitude, in contrast to the often overblown and unabashedly Oscar-baiting recent additions to the genre that have largely failed to meet the excitement generated by their pre-release hype. It is ultimately a simple film made special by its aim to please and the charm of an undeniably talented cast. New Line's 2-disc "Shake & Shimmy" edition offers a bevy of enticing and entertaining supplements that complement the film and provide greater incentive to seek it out. It's a winner all the way.