Despite Travolta's turn as a Turnblad, Hairspray is anything but a drag


on July 20, 2007 by Chad Greene
The televisions tuned to the Corny Collins Show are black-and-white, but the featured dancers on the early-1960s Baltimorean bandstand are all white—except on its once-a-month “Negro Day,” when they're all black.

But if the plucky and, yes, “pleasantly plump” Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nicole Blonsky) had anything to say about it, the show she rushes home after school to dance along to would become a frugging frontrunner of racial integration. “I wish every day was Negro Day,” she sighs.

As in both the 1988 John Waters film and the 2002 Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman stage musical, the toe-tapping teen tries to teach her hometown a lesson along those lines after winning a spot as a dancer—and overnight local celebrity—on the Corny Collins Show . Although Corny (James Marsden) and his Negro Day substitute Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) not-so-secretly support ending on-air segregation also, they can't convince conniving station manager Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer)—who's doubly threatened by Tracy's politics and her potential for dethroning Velma's much-primped princess Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow), the presumed heir apparent to the coveted title of Miss Teen Hairspray.

Whether its individual scenes are accompanied by teen anthems or protest songs, it's impossible to deny that Hairspray 's got a good beat, and you can dance to it. From the minute Tracy wakes up singing “Good Morning, Baltimore” to the made-for-TV moment when she dances along to “You Can't Stop the Beat,” Shaiman and Wittman's score—which won a Tony Award on Broadway—is crazily catchy.

The only scenes that threaten to jar the metaphorical needle enough to scratch the film's otherwise golden record are those dominated by Tracy's equal parts overweight and overprotective mother Edna Turnblad (John Travolta). A tragic train wreck of stunt casting gone awry, Travolta's performance—derailed in part by an awfully muddled accent—is a drag in every sense of the word. Certainly, it made sense for Waters to cast his cross-dressing muse, the since-deceased Divine, as Edna in the original Hairspray . But despite Harvey Fierstein's celebrated star turn on Broadway, there's simply no compelling reason that a man—especially this particular man— has to play the part.

For the most part, though, the filmmakers have taken the advice of Tracy Turnblad's other parent (Christopher Walken) to heart: “You gotta think big to be big.”
Distributor: New Line
Cast: Nicole Blonsky, John Travolta, Christopher Walken, Zac Efron, Queen Latifah, Michelle Pfeiffer, Amanda Bynes, Elijah Kelley, Brittany Snow and James Marsden
Director: Adam Shankman
Screenwriter: Leslie Dixon
Songwriters: Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
Producers: Craig Zadan and Neil Meron
Genre: Musical comedy
Rating: PG for language, some suggestive content and momentary teen smoking
Running time: 117 min.
Release date: July 20, 2007
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