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Dance Fever

At Least This Hairspray Has All The Right Moves

HIGHLANDTOWN FLING: Nikki Blonsky shakes what her momma gave her.


Director:Adam Shankman
Cast:John Travolta, Nikki Blonsky, Amanda Bynes, Christopher Walken
Release Date:2007

Opens July 20

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 7/18/2007

Do we really need another version of Hairspray? After all, the 1988 original was one of John Waters' very best movies, and the 2002 Broadway stage adaptation was an artistic dud, even if it was a box-office success. But, yes, it turns out we do need another Hairspray.

Even though it's based on the Broadway musical, Adam Shankman's new movie nullifies the weaknesses of that stage production and adds something that neither of the earlier versions had: spectacular dancing. Shankman's background is as a dancer (including videos for Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul) and as a choreographer on more than 30 movies. He not only creates terrific moves for his young performers but also turns the camera and the editing table into perfect dance partners who move as briskly and gracefully as the human beings in front of them.

The result is the best dance movie since Baz Luhrmann's 2001 Moulin Rouge. To pick just one example, a scene in the new Hairspray has a desperate crowd of high-schoolers with forged detention slips clamoring to get into the detention hall at Baltimore's Patterson Park High School. Why? Because that room of battered desks and dusty instructional charts has the best dancing in North America.

Detention is usually an all-black affair at Patterson Park High, but today three white kids have found their way in--Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky), the short, fat girl with charisma galore, her best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes), and Tracy's romantic obsession Link Larkin (Zac Efron). The newcomers are dazzled by the rubber-limbed, rump-bumping, rug-burning moves demonstrated by Seaweed Stubbs (Elijah Kelley) and his pals, and the white kids jump in as best they can.

Soon there's so much energy that the room can't contain it. The bell rings, and the dancers spill out into the linoleum hallways, bouncing off the lockers, and out into the playground, where the jocks stare google-eyed through the cyclone fence at the dirty boogie. On the school bus, the kids are bouncing off the seats until they reach the ghetto, where they tumble into Motormouth Maybelle's record shop, never missing a dance step the whole way. It's a deliciously dizzying sequence.

The songs that Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman wrote for the Broadway musical and the several new numbers they added for the movie are reasonable facsimiles of early-'60s rock 'n' roll. But they resemble the forgettable B-sides of those singles, never the memorable A-sides, and there's absolutely no reason to ever listen to the soundtrack. When those tunes were performed on Broadway with a traditional pit band, they sounded especially cheesy, but Shankman improves them dramatically by giving them the Phil Spector Wall of Sound treatment in the studio. If the lyrics and melodies aren't very authentic, at least the production is.

The stage show also tended to bleach the Baltimore flavor out of Hairspray, turning it into a generic Broadway musical that happened to be set in Maryland. Shankman and his screenwriter Leslie Dixon restore the Baltimore sensibility. In the wonderful opening sequence, the camera dives down from the clouds into the endless lines of rowhouses in East Baltimore, down through the Formstone facade around Tracy's window and into her bed where she pops up and starts singing "Good Morning Baltimore."

Soon she's dancing through the streets of Highlandtown, and because cinematographers and movie set designers can capture details as no stage designer ever can, we see the drunks, perverts, beehives, and vermin of Eastern Avenue in all their splendid specificity. When Tracy sings about the local rats, real rats scamper about her feet and she tosses them breadcrumbs. When she sings about the local flasher, Waters himself makes an Alfred Hitchcock-like cameo in an unbuttoned trench coat.

Tracy's dream is to become a regular dancer on the Corny Collins Show, Baltimore's daily afternoon program of teenagers dancing to rock 'n' roll records (modeled on the real-life Buddy Deane Show). Her way is blocked by snobby, snotty station manager Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her daughter Amber (Brittany Snow), the reigning Miss Hairspray. But Tracy finds her way in by attracting the attention of Link, the show's most popular guy and Amber's boyfriend. Before long, Tracy's frosted bangs and thunderous pelvic action are being imitated by girls all over Baltimore, while Tracy and Amber become bitter rivals for Link's affections and the Miss Hairspray crown.

Once a month, the usually all-white Corny Collins Show gives way to a Negro Day hosted by Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah). When Tracy meets the dancers from that show in detention, she realizes that it's not right that they can't join her on the regular show. Soon she is carrying a picket sign in an integration march down Eastern Avenue, and soon after that she's on the lam for bopping a cop on the noggin with her poster-board sign.

Blonsky is a real spark plug as Tracy, the role that launched Ricki Lake's career. Blonsky has a big voice, fearless moves for such an unlikely body, and a likability that's hard to resist. As Tracy's mother, Edna, John Travolta tries to step into the cha-cha shoes worn by Waters' biggest star, Divine. Travolta is hampered by too much lifeless prosthetics and by a decision to play Edna as someone much shyer and more self-effacing than Divine's character. But Travolta eventually overcomes these handicaps and makes you root for a food-crazed mother who can overcome her suspicion of black folks when handed a plate of barbeque and corn bread.

Christopher Walken is less impressive as Tracy's dad Wilbur; he seems to go through the motions until he rouses himself for a delightful Fred-Astaire-and-Ginger-Rogers-like dance duet with Travolta. Giving a more typical Walken-like performance as pure evil personified is Pfeiffer, who makes Velma Von Tussle even nastier than she was in Debbie Harry's 1988 portrayal. On the other hand, Queen Latifah is underwhelming as Motormouth Maybelle compared to the sassy Ruth Brown original.

The other teenagers in the cast are OK--neither great assets nor great liabilities. But when they are set in motion by Shankman, they fill the screen with kaleidoscopic patterns of athleticism. If you've ever loved dance movies, whether Singin' in the Rain or Saturday Night Fever, this is the picture for you, even if you don't give a rat's ass about Baltimore or John Waters.

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