I am not sure which is the more amusingly surprising — the idea that one of the most painful struggles in American history could become the subject of a light musical comedy, or the idea that it comes from one of the most profoundly transgressive writer/directors in film history. Nineteen years after John Waters’ most accessible film, Hairspray gave us an irresistible heroine whose mastery of the Madison and audacious hair-teasing helped to bring about integration of a teen dance television show. Later, it became a wildly successful Broadway musical. And now it returns to the screen with an all-star cast of Hollywood heavyweights (so to speak), starring an adorable newcomer, Nikki Blonsky. Like all good Cinderella stories, this one has some grounding in reality, as this is Blonsky’s first professional role and she was working at her job at an ice cream store when she got the word she had the part.
Blonsky plays the irrepressible Tracy Turnblad, the daughter of the ever-ironing Edna (John Travolta) and Wilbur (Christopher Walken), the owner of the “Ha Ha Hut,” a whoopee cushion and handshake buzzer emporium.
In her opening number Tracy greets her home city of 1962 Baltimore, with unabashed affection for everyone from the neighborhood flasher (played by Waters) to the bum on the barstool. Like every self-respecting musical comedy heroine, Tracy has a dream. She wants to appear on the popular teen dance program, “The Corny Collins Show.” Lo and behold, an opening occurs and she auditions. Station manager Velma Von Tussle (Michele Pfeiffer), a former “Miss Baltimore Crabs,” whose standards of beauty are limited to the blonde and willowy, whose standards of inclusion are limited to the Aryan and WASP-y, and whose standards of appropriate behavior are unlimited when it comes to whatever will make her daughter Amber (Brittany Snow) Miss Hairspray for the third time. Velma sees short and chubby Tracy as a threat to everything she believes and wants, especially when she flunks the interview question about integrated swimming pools.
Segregation was not limited to the South in the pre-Civil Rights Act era, and the “Corny Collins Show” is all-white, all the time, except for the once a month “Negro Day” hosted by Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah). At a dance, the white and black kids are separated by a rope. Tracy does a dance she learned from Seaweed J. Stubbs (an electrifying Elijah Kelley) (with his permission) and lands a spot on the show.
Things heat up when Negro Day gets cancelled and Tracy and her friends organize a protest march. Velma goes to extremes to stop Tracy from being named Miss Hairspray. And everyone sings and dances through it all, and it is sweet and funny and as much fun as a sock hop where everyone gets asked to dance.
Parents should know that even though the movie is rated PG it has some mild content issues including humorous references to teen pregnancy, a flasher (played by writer/director Waters), alcoholism, teenagers stuffing bras and pants, and some potty humor. Characters smoke and drink, including smoking by teens and by pregnant women. There is some mild language in lyrics and dialogue (“I screwed the judges,” “French kissing,” “kiss my ass”). Amber tries to destroy Tracy’s reputation by spreading rumors that she did a crude drawing of the teacher and had sex with the football team. Characters are upset by suggestive dance moves. As in all previous versions of this story, a female character is portrayed by a male actor, though there is no suggestion that she is a male in drag or anything but completely female. The movie deals with themes of racial discrimination and some characters make racist and other bigoted comments. A strength of the movie is its frank (if idealized) portrayal of some issues of the civil rights era, though, like most mainstream films, it focuses on the white characters and their roles.
Families who see this movie should ask why Tracy was so free from the assumptions and fears of her household and her community. It is almost impossible for today’s children and teenagers to imagine that within the lifetimes of their parents and grandparents such blatant racism was an accepted way of thinking. Families should see films like Boycott and Eyes on the Prize for a better sense of the courage and determination of the real-life heroes of the civil rights movement.