Sunday, September 8, 2013

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: Hairspray

Hairspray (2007) is another movie that was on the border between Right and Wrong.  However, unlike Across the Universe, I feel a bit more confident saying that Hairspray falls on the Wrong side.

Hairspray began as a movie -- a quirky non-musical from 1988 starring Ricki Lake.  From there, it became a Broadway stage musical, and then that stage musical became a movie.  Obviously it's not unusual for movies to be remade, but for a remake to come out less than 20 years after the original?  But then, that's the trend these days for movies to be remade every 10 years or so, though it usually involves a superhero franchise.

The story focuses on an overweight teenager named Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky in the Ricki Lake role) living in Baltimore with her two parents.  Tracy and her friend, Penny Pingleton, devote their lives to The Corny Collins Show, a local American bandstand that features teenagers dancing to the latest music -- of 1962.  The date and the location are significant because in 1962, Baltimore was still racially segregated.  The Corny Collins Show cast is all white, except for one Tuesday a month called Negro Day.

When a rare opportunity to join the show comes up, Tracy auditions, despite the objections of her mother (John Travolta... yes).  The manager of the station, Velma von Tussle (Michelle Pfieffer), rejects Tracy for being overweight and supporting an integrated cast, but Corny Collins ends up hiring her.  Tracy becomes a big sensation and overshadows another cast mate, Velma's daughter, Amber.  Velma plots to bring Tracy down, especially after Tracy shows no signs of giving up on integration.  Amber's boyfriend, Link, takes a romantic interest in Tracy.

Meanwhile, on a trip to detention, Tracy meets several local black students, who teach her their dance moves.  The best dancer, Seaweed, eventually takes Tracy to his home, where they learn that Velma pressured The Corny Collins Show to cancel Negro Day.  Tracy then encourages a march on the station, which is led by Seaweed's mother, Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah), and chaos ensues.

I won't give away the entire plot, but you can see that it's more than simply "heavy girl fulfills her dream of becoming a dance star."  There is a lot to like about Hairspray, which I will detail below.  However, whether a movie is Right or Wrong depends upon whether it meets the goals that it sets out for itself.  I don't think it does.  While the movie is fat positive and interracial, it is also hypocritical in ways that it likely never intended, and the good parts are not good enough to make up for it.

The Good

1.  Nikki Blonsky as Tracy.  The movie could have been a disaster without the sparkly presence of (then) newcomer, Nikki Blonsky.  She sets the general tone and makes everything that happens seem natural.  She's so bubbly adorable that you can't see anything wrong with a garbage man letting her sit on top of his truck instead of in the cab, because it just isn't that type of movie.  She even made me like Baltimore, which is an impressive feat, given how I felt after the most recent Super Bowl...

2.  Nice Message.  It's rare when movies have one positive message, let alone two.  First, Hairspray refreshingly chose to portray an overweight protagonist without ever (1) mocking her appearance or (2) subjecting her to "hilarious" fat person antics, like stuffing her face or tripping over her feet constantly.  Second, just when you think the movie is only going to be about a fat girl finding acceptance, it shines a spotlight on the harms of racial segregation.  If anything, the message of racial equality is Hairspray's main message, with the fat positive one being secondary.
3.  Nice Vibe.  In many respects, Hairspray gives off more fun and happy energy than Mamma Mia!, and with arguably less effort.  So many characters are nice and positive and well meaning, and the bad guys (Velma and Amber) inevitably get theirs.  Overall, the movie has a positive "You can do it!" vibe that is rare and rather refreshing.    

The Bad

1.  Not As Fat Positive As It Thinks It Is.  You know how I said that Hairspray allowed Blonsky's Tracy to carry on with dignity?  That's probably because the goofy fat jokes have instead been directed toward her mother, Edna.  Or "mother," because Edna is played by a man in a fat suit, John Travolta.  I get that the man in drag thing is a tradition that dates back to the original movie, for reasons that likely made sense then.  The problem is that Travolta plays the role so straight, I wonder why they didn't just cast a woman.  Yes, man in drag in a fat suit is quirky, but from what I gather, this movie has already stripped away a lot of the original movie's quirkiness, so what's one more thing?  There is something warped about watching an overweight, middle-aged woman discover her beauty when the woman is really a man in a fat suit.  As if I didn't find John Travolta creepy enough.  I guess it's too much for a movie to give dignity to two overweight women.

2.  White Savior Trope.  Just because Tracy is overweight and adorable does not mean she's immune to a trope that too many white characters fall into: the white savior.  While both Tracy and the movie have noble aims, the movie makes the mistake of having Tracy speak for the black characters, rather than having them be full characters in their own right.  The most distinct black character is Motormouth Maybelle, but only because it's Queen Latifah, always called upon to be the source of dignity and world-weary cynicism.  Yet even she largely reacts to Tracy -- "Wow, white girl, what a great idea!  Marching to protest injustice!"  At one point, it seems as though racial harmony depends upon getting Tracy to The Corny Collins Show in time for the Miss Teenage Hairspray contest.  This may be the fault of the original movie, but it doesn't make it less frustrating.

3.  Unmemorable Songs.  Like Dreamgirls, Hairspray has songs that are good enough to get the job done, but nothing truly great.  ("And I Am Telling You" is a "known" song, but not a great one.)  At some point after "(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs," the songs started to bleed into another, one long monotonous string of bee-bopping and doo-opping.  And speaking of "Miss Baltimore Crabs," who told Michelle Pfeiffer that she could sing?  She can sing passably, but her voice is thin and grating, making "Miss Baltimore Crabs" easily the most irritating song of the bunch.  Or maybe I'm still bitter that she was the voice of Tzipporah, a black character in The Prince of Egypt.  By contrast, the song that is arguably best is the finale song, "You Can't Stop the Beat," as seen below.

4.  Just Generally Generic.  A musical from quirky source material could have been truly special, but instead it's just... okay.  Apart from Tracy, Edna, and Velma, the characters are pretty bland.  Penny, Seaweed, Little Inez, Corny Collins, even Tracy's father, played by Christopher Walken, don't leave a big impression.  (ETA: Forgot to mention that one exception was the wonderful Allison Janney as Penny's moralizing mom.  So underused.)  Paired with bland music, it makes a movie that starts with giddy energy feel dull and tired (though it picks up again right before the end).  


Hairspray wants to be fun and happy, yet deep and meaningful, and ends up being just... all right.  It has enough positive qualities to make it worth watching, but not enough to be memorable.  If anything, it makes me more interested in checking out the original.

Other Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: The Phantom of the OperaEvitaRENT, Across the Universe, Rock of Ages

Movie Musicals That Got It Right:  DreamgirlsLes Miserables, ChicagoMamma Mia!


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