Hairspray is yet another film-to-stage-to-film adaptation that has its origins in 1988 with a John Waters film of the same name. Now, before I carry on I feel it is important to state that I have not seen the original source material nor have I seen the 2002 Tony Award winning musical which the latest film outing is based upon.

I do, however, know John Waters. Not in a personal capacity of course but in terms of his other work. Waters is a cult filmmaker whose trademark is an offensive (transgressive) style of filmmaking that seeks to shock an audience’s taste and sensibilities, at the same time often making comment on certain aspects of society. Waters films are subversive, pulling no punches, and while I certainly didn’t expect this latest version of Hairspray to be shocking or the least bit offensive. In fact, it could have done with a lot more edge.

As heroine Tracy Turnblad belted out the first few lines of the film’s opening song (Good Morning Baltimore) I was immediately turned off. I like sweet and adorable, really I do, but I just couldn’t stomach the tepid and forced approach to direction and the song’s mediocre and uninspired lyrics (this is Tony winning material?). A musical is supposed to grab you with its opening number, not push you away. Unfortunately, this laboured start set the tone for the rest of the film.

Tracy Turnblad’s (Nikki Blonsky) dream is to dance on the Corny Collins Show. As a young, optimistic high school teenager she won’t let anyone get in the way of her goal, whether it be her mother Edna (John Travolta) or her fellow classmates. Being a bit on the ‘heavy’ side Tracy knows that she is different but she also believes that this difference makes her unique. Her positive attitude and unwillingness to submit to what other people feel she should be soon sees her taking on the preconceived notions of not only the local TV station heads (Michelle Pfeiffer) but also challenging the separatist policies of 1960’s America.

Hairspray’s greatest fault is that it never slips into a more serious mode. With the 1960s Civil Rights Movement used as a grounding for the happenings on the Corny Collins Show (which has a day set aside for “negroes”) and a catalyst for the film’s major message (that being black, fat or different is a positive thing) you’d think that this would happen at some point. No chance.

Director/choreographer Adam Shankman (Cheaper by the Dozen 2, The Pacifier) maintains such a sugar-coated (naive?) approach to the entire project that when it comes time to get serious the film simply glosses (or should that be glazes) over the fact that the 60’s were filled with strife. No one hates in Hairspray, they simply dislike each other a whole darn lot. There is no acknowledgement that the forced separation taking place on the Corny Collins show is serious or wrong. The facade of staged happiness seen on the show is never shattered. Hairspray maintains one happy – nauseating – level throughout.

When it comes to the two things a musical should be good at, singing and dancing, Hairspray struggles along with instantly forgettable lyrics and routines. I honestly cannot recall a single line of song from the film.

John Travolta’s performance as Tracy’s mother is disappointing. You’ve, no doubt, seen publicity shots or the trailer with Travolta wearing pounds of special effects makeup and a wig, speaking in the finest feminine voice he can muster. While these clips are quite delightful, having to watch Travolta in any scenes longer than a few seconds is rather painful. I understand that the point of this casting blunder is for an audience to know that it is John Travolta playing a woman. Hollywood has been using this same gimmick for decades (Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis in Some Like it Hot) but the novelty soon wears off because Travolta is unable to get into character.

Having stated that, “there is nothing gay in this movie,” Travolta has upset many in the gay community who feel that the casting of a heterosexual man in a role developed and maintained by drag queens (Divine) and gay men (Harvey Fierstein) is a betrayal of the source material. A gay man would probably have brought some much needed flexibility and emotion to a role that Travolta suffocates under. The man can dance but he is grating to watch in this role. I would have loved to have seen Harvey Fierstein reprise the character for this film instead.

The negatives aside, Hairspray has some fine performances from Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken and former X-Man James Marsden. Marsden shines in a role that was written for him, his performance is certainly corny but extremely pleasing to watch; Pfeiffer steals the show as the only racist in the whole film and Walken does his oddball thing that I love so much.

Apart from these minor elements of brilliance, however, Hairspray has little going for it. The reviewer who stated that this musical is “Grease for a new generation” doesn’t know what he/she is talking about. Hairspray is a vapid, unfulfilling experience that would instantly be destroyed by one frantic pelvic thrust from greaser Danny Zuko.

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