Talking Movies

July 24, 2019

From the Archives: Hairspray

The first deep dive into the last remaining cache of pre-Talking Movies archives pulls up one of James Marsden’s two quite mad 2007 feel-good musicals.

Baltimore, 1962: a young girl dreams of being picked as a dancer on a local TV show. She may be overweight but she can dance and her friendship with a black dancer may just be the beginning of the end for the racist policies of the network…

If you’ve watched Ugly Betty you’ll remember the joyous scene where Betty’s nephew Justin, stranded on the Subway while trying to get to Broadway, entertains the other passengers with a spirited rendition of Hairspray’s opening number ‘Good Morning, Baltimore!’. As show-openers go it’s quite a tune and it sets the tone for the rest of this film, joyously upbeat with a healthy serving of camp outrageousness, as can be seen in John Waters’ cameo during the song, which is far too good a comic moment to ruin here. Like Ugly Betty, Hairspray’s campness gives it a licence to make all manner of outrageous gags. Consider Corny Collins’ (James Marsden) lyrics introducing his show: “Where nice white kids lead the way/And once a month we have Negro day”. The music is at all times bouncy, apart from one suitably sombre ballad sung by Queen Latifah during a civil rights march, but it’s the lyrics that take your breath away over and over again with their barbed wit.

Tracy Turnblad is handpicked for the Corny Collins’ show after he sees her new moves, learnt from a black dancer (Elijah Kelley) in detention (in a typical gag only black kids and fat white kids seem to get detention in this school). Amber, the lead dancer, is fiercely resentful of this and her mother, the network director, goes all out to get Tracy off the show and get rid of her corrupting influence; she thinks TV should “push kids in the white direction”. Michelle Pfeiffer’s first song, done in the style of Marlene Dietrich, is a delicious introduction to her Aryan villain Velma Von Tussell. The large ensemble does justice to this camp material with a serious subtext. Zac Efron channels his inner James Dean as moody hunk Link (with whom Tracy falls head over heels in love) while Amanda Bynes is a revelation as Tracy’s best friend Penny Pingleton, gone are the irritating tics displayed in She’s the Man and in their place genuine comic timing. John Travolta is hilarious in drag as Tracy’s mother, who hasn’t left her house since 1951 because of anxiety over her weight. His song and dance duet with Christopher Walken is a highlight.

The film does sag a bit towards the end and you fear it’s running out of steam as the savage reality of racism deflates the camp exuberance but then the mad logic of musicals (think Singin’ in the Rain) comes into operation and the finale comes up trumps. It’s always sunny in Baltimore.

4/5

Advertisements

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.