Friday, July 20, 2007

'Hairspray'-- Another Hare Brained Musical?

The heyday of musicals has long since come and gone. In fact they peaked in the late 50s and early 60s (think 'Music Man', 'Oklahoma', or the real blockbuster that basically killed off the genre for a generation-- 'The Sound of Music'). Basically those sorts of musicals were exported from the Broadway stage in NY to the studios in L.A. and became major films. 'Hairspray' is in fact another good example of that sort of phenomenon. The difference of course is that in film, you can fake the singing, whereas on stage, either you got it or you don't when it comes to singing and dancing.

Of course there have been notable surprises in the past twenty years that showed that the musical on film could still be a hit-- 'Grease' of course was a good example (and the music in 'Hairspray' is mostly a recreation of that same do wop period), and more recently 'Chicago' was certainly first rate and won various awards. How then will 'Hairspray do?

First of all it seems clear that the producers realized that two things were required-- star power and great music and dancing. Fortunately for the producers the music was already widely acclaimed to be good from the reviews of the Broadway play, so it was more about the casting. So what did they do? Well they picked two people who had been absolute stars of the two biggest more recent examples of this genre--- John Travolta from 'Grease' fame, and Queen Latifah from 'Chicago' fame. But not satisfied with that, they went out and got Michelle Pfeiffer to play the mol who is the TV show producer, and Christopher Walken as Travolta's--- well husband (you see Travolta plays the stay at home big momma who takes in laundry in this movie). And as if that were not enough we have Allison Janey in a cameo role as a really up tight Catholic mom. At center stage however is first timer Nikki Blonsky from N.Y. who is only three years away from watching 'Hairspray' as a mere spectator. She is terrific, as is the cast in general. Interestingly the setting for the show is not NY or NJ, but rather Baltimore. Who knew Baltimore was the center of the do wop universe?

Movie musicals are usually about as mainstream and apple pie as one could possibly imagine, shying away from anything that looks like controversy, but not 'Hairspray'. No indeed. Not only does it plug the message 'it's o.k. to be big and beautiful' (with Travolta, Queen Latifah, and Blonsky all doing their part to show its o.k. for the large to be in charge and 'get down'), but in fact this show turns into an integration and inter-racial dating promo as well-- all set in 1962 Baltimore. Which part of trying to do too many things in one play/ film don't they get? Yet somehow it all comes together and works.

Now about the music, because without the music, well, let's just say the plot will not be winning any awards for creativity or best script. The music, with hommages to big band music, show tunes, do wop, and even some soul and gospel, is first rate, and original. Because it is a musical we expect a lot of music, but in 'Hairspray' as in 'Chicago' it is almost non stop upbeat music, some of which goes for the jugular as pull out all the stops huge dance numbers with big finishes. Undoubtedly the producer and director wanted this film to have the same energy and drive as the play, and they succeeded quite well. There is very little dialogue or plain talking in this movie. And this brings us to an important point.

Musicals like opera, requires a significant suspension of disbelief. As the old saying goes in opera when someone is stabbed instead of dying right away, they sing for a while. In musicals, almost anything serves as an excuse for singing and dancing-- even detention at high school is turned into a song and dance routine. If detention had been like that, I would have tried to sit in on that class. You have to love music and dancing, to suspend your disbelief as much as is required for a movie like 'Hairspray' to work. And yet it does work.

The movie clocks in at a breathless one hour and 47 minutes (you have to be in shape to sing and dance that long almost non-stop), and it ably re-creates the feel of 1962 when the Platters and the Drifters and the Coasters were kings. And this brings up another point. The Beatles had not yet hit America, changing it forever musically, nor frankly had major integration marches hit the streets before a little later in the 60s. This show then is stealing a message from later in the 60s while wanting to live musically earlier in the 60s. No matter-- this show is not trying to be a history lesson, just some fun with a little social conscience.

Inquiring minds may want to know-- does Travolta work as a large woman? Well, yes, and no. His voice is frankly too phony southern to suit a real southerner like myself. On the other hand Michelle Pfeiffer does a racist Cat woman impression pretty good, and Christopher Walken is just plain funny as the father/ husband and owner of the novelty shop The Hardy Har Hut. I could have done without the slam on over-protective Catholic mothers, as played out quite brilliantly by Allison Janey, but then there were folks like that, in that era. Unfortunately Christianity doesn't come off to well in this film.

Is this a film for families to see? Well, I guess it depends on the family. If they are teens and adults, I suppose it will be fine, but some of the racier dancing and innuendo in this film will be too much for some Christian families. The joy and fun of the music doesn't overcome all the drawbacks of the film. Is 'Hairspray' another hare-brained musical? Well no, it's not. Nor is it mere fluff either. But whether it will win the awards 'Chicago' won is doubtful. As summer fun however, many are already enjoying it.

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