Adam Shankman | 111 mins | DVD | PG / PG
Who’d’ve thought a John Waters film could become a bright and breezy musical? It’s a bit of a surprise but, thanks to a successful Broadway version, that’s exactly what’s happened. But while the key to Hairspray’s success may be its positive attitude and memorable songs, perhaps the key to its quality — and the eventual score of this review — are the issues it tackles around those.
It’s the latter that I found must surprising while watching the film. Everything about its advertising campaign, largely young cast and candy-coloured design suggested Hairspray was a light-as-air feel-good flick — no bad thing, but nothing more than a couple of hours of disposable fun. Pleasantly that’s not the case, as the film tackles head-on issues of racism and other such discrimination, with the ‘beautiful people’ — led by a deliciously bitchy Michelle Pfeiffer — doing their best to keep down those who are in any way different, be they black or, in the case of lead character Tracy Turnblad, fat. The apparently fluffy style of the film in many ways makes it perfect to tackle such issues, showing how they can permeate every area of life, not just Serious Social Dramas, and forces those who would normally avoid the latter type of drama to face up to them. Its ultimately happy ending may be more in keeping with the film’s overriding optimism than with reality, but equally it’s wholly appropriate: the crusade against oppression has to end well here, because if it didn’t the concluding message would be “don’t bother fighting, things won’t change”.
The film’s unwavering optimism is perfectly encapsulated by newcomer Nikki Blonsky, leading the cast as Tracy. She’s instantly and constantly likeable, irrepressibly chirpy and yet not annoying — an impressive feat. Equally remarkably, she’s never overshadowed by the heavyweights who round out the cast; instead, they provide able support. Even John Travolta, disturbingly convincing as a housewife (under a ton of makeup), doesn’t steal the show — he comes close, but Blonsky’s performance holds sway. Elsewhere, Christopher Walken, Queen Latifah, James Marsden and Zac Efron all get catchy songs and have a whale of a time — and, unlike the Ocean’s… sequels, the fun the cast is having is infectious.
The first credit at the close is an unusual one: “Directed and Choreographed by Adam Shankman”. Rather than shirking in either department, the rare combination seems to have helped proceedings: the numbers are all exemplarily executed and the direction doesn’t suffer elsewhere. It’s an indication of the music’s quality that even the three cut songs, which play over the end credits, are pretty good and wouldn’t’ve been out of place in the film itself. The first of these is clearly the actual closing number, though the decision to bump it to the end credits, thereby leaving You Can’t Stop the Beat as the final song of the film proper, was a wise one — it makes for a stronger, catchier, more upbeat finale.
Hairspray is a deft mix of issue-driven drama and colourful musical levity. Catchy, optimistic, uplifting, funny and fun, it may just surprise you.
Hairspray is on Film4 today, Tuesday 11th November 2014, at 6:45pm.
Hairspray placed 6th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2008, which can be read in full here.