Technicolor Dancing and Delirium circa 1960's Baltimore
The Popcorn Reel Movie Review: "Hairspray"
By Omar P.L. Moore/July 21, 2007
The truth of yesteryear: The story of Petula and Harry on American television,
Almost 40 years ago, on April 8, 1968 -- four days after the
assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. -- on her first NBC television
special, Petula Clark, the England-born singing legend, lightly tapped
American-born singing and acting legend Harry Belafonte on the arm during a duet
they sung. It was the first time that physical contact was made between a
black man and a white woman on American television. Days before the
special aired, Clark was asked by a representative from Chrysler, which
sponsored her special, to edit out her light touch of Mr. Belafonte's arm,
fearing that white Southerners would be offended. Clark, who owned the
rights to her special, refused. The show received record ratings and was a
critical success. (Note the Freudian "tonight 8:00 in color" in the above
A penny now in 2007 for the thoughts of Petula Clark, 74, and Harry Belafonte,
80, should they watch this latest incarnation of "Hairspray", which opened
yesterday. Adam Shankman's film, based on the original Broadway musical,
is one that is hard not to love. Constantly vivacious, exuberant and
energetic to the max, "Hairspray" is set six years before Petula Clark's
special, and in Baltimore. Tracy Turnblad (played by Nicole "Nikki"
Blonsky, in a remarkable feature film debut) serenades the town radiantly and
with all the cheer and happiness one could expect from one on her way to school.
And from there, the energy of Mr. Shankman's film only flies higher.
A regal Queen: Latifah on target as Motormouth Maybelle, and exciting
newcomer Nicole "Nikki" Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad in Adam Shankman's "Hairspray"
a funny, fantastic swarm of sight, sound and color. (All color photos:
David James/New Line Cinema)
Baltimore in 1962 is as segregated as ever, and television has
not witnessed a black and a white person dancing with each other, and on The
Corny Collins Show, the closest thing to integrated dance halls is Negro Pride
Day, a separate event for blacks which comes around once a week. Off the
Baltimore (and the nation's) television screens, the school detention rooms are
the other place where blacks and whites "mix", but there's a whole lot of
shaking of money makers going on. Tracy hits it off with Seaweed J. Stubbs
(Elijah Kelley) and before long she freely interacts with him while keeping an
adoring eye on an Elvis Presley look-alike named Link (another newcomer, Zac
Efron) who has been setting "The Corny Collins Show" alight with his sound and
John Travolta, indescribably amazing as Edna Turnblad, and Michelle Pfeiffer,
who was in "Grease 2" way back when, stars in "Hairspray" as Velma Von Tuggle.
With "Hairspray" Mr. Shankman knows how to raise temperatures,
whether sexual or racial (he did both with "Bringing Down The House") and all of
his actors here give "Hairspray" every bit of the passion they have, most
notably John Travolta, who does the drag routine superbly as Edna Turnblad.
Not only does the fat suit Mr. Travolta wears work, but the actor excels in
spite of it, with a stupendous performance, so good that it is indescribable --
it has to be witnessed. In a way it is fitting (no pun intended) that
Travolta is part of this film, because this latest "Hairspray" is as good as, if
not better than Mr. Travolta's last musical film "Grease", in its vigor,
dynamism and passion -- and as a flat-out work of film art. In the new
film color is starched, scorched and saturated. Costumes are sharp,
pristine and natty. Hairstyles are coiffed and sprayed to the nines, and
everyone dresses and dances to kill. In Tracy's case, her objective is to
first get on to the popular show hosted by Corny Collins (James Marsden) -- a
Dick Clark "American Bandstand" type host -- then to break the color barrier and
to be successful in the Miss Teenage Hairspray pageant, though not necessarily
in that order.
The best things about the new "Hairspray" are the musical numbers, the
dancing, and the
dialogue by Leslie Dixon, filled with many cheekily entertaining quips,
innuendoes and double entendres. Each character has his or her own story
and separate films could easily be made about each.
There is the phenomenal acting done by Michelle Pfeiffer as
the racist and obnoxious Velma Von Tussle, and great work by Queen Latifah as
Motormouth Maybelle. She is regal and grand, and worth every bit of her
royal title here, and may even pick up a second Oscar nomination (her first was
for another musical, "Chicago", which pales in comparison to this gem. If
Chicago won four Oscars or thereabouts, will "Hairspray" win any in 2008?)
One of the biggest highlights of "Hairspray" is Alison Janney's performance as
Mrs. Pingleton, who has a very definite idea of how her daughter Penny (Amanda
Bynes) should be raised. If not for Mr. Travolta, "Hairspray" would be
tucked squarely in Ms. Janney's back pocket.
Petula, meet Penny: A Baltimore 1962 un-reality, in "Hairspray" as Amanda
Bynes as Penny and Elijah Kelley as Seaweed, in an embrace pre-dating but in
reality anteceding the then "controversial" hand-on-arm gesture by Petula Clark
on Harry Belafonte, during Ms. Clark's television special on April 8, 1968, just
four days after Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination.
Seaweed and Penny share more than a light innocent touch of hands
in Mr. Shankman's film, and in a 1962 America where the landmark Supreme Court
case Loving vs. Virginia would later overturn the ban on interracial marriage in
the U.S. in 1968, Seaweed and Penny would likely have been hung, drawn and
quartered in reality 40 years ago for what they do in 1962 Baltimore in Mr. Shankman's musical. Petula and Harry would have received death threats
(and probably did after Ms. Clark's special in 1968) if they had done what
Seaweed and Penny do. There is still tremendous unease within movie
audiences in 2007 America when Mr. Shankman's camera shows the two film
characters sharing their feelings in a fictional 1962 setting. One particular scene is a
color-conscious taste test, if you will, for today's audiences, and judging from
some of the silence and muted cheers during the scene in question, most filmgoing audiences would fail the truth serum test outright. Credit Mr.
Shankman for throwing the kitchen sink at the big screen and daring the most
provincial to shout "fire!" in a crowded theater. He knows how to push
buttons and avoid safety, and that's what makes "Hairspray" so bold, brazen and
Newcomer Zac Efron as Link, doing his best Elvis Presley impression in
Vanilla Sky: Brittany Snow as Amber Von Tuggle and James Marsden as Corny
Collins (both center spotlight) in Adam Shankman's "Hairspray".
"Hairspray" makes a symbolic assessment of the American civil
rights movement and like "Dreamgirls" tends to obliquely examine the seminal
events of the crucial defining decade that was the sixties, even as its
overarching theme is tailored to the integrationist overtones of more inclusive
and diverse television
entertainment. This is the only place where "Hairspray" makes a misstep:
the majority of those in the civil rights movement were not fighting as much for
integration as they were for equal access, equal opportunity, fair treatment,
and against separation from better facilities of learning, etc., and most
importantly, fighting for justice. (Some of the placards in one of the film's
scenes say, "black and white
together on television.") While the film is based on the musical, a
critical detour is taken when depicting the larger civil rights movement
surrounding the events in Baltimore. (So
far this year, only "Talk To Me", the film by Kasi Lemmons, nails the
chronicling of the American civil rights movement and its impact on the country
during the critical and volatile sixties, as it is juxtaposed with the story of
that film's characters.)
On another note, it's almost easy to forget Christopher Walken is present in
this film as Wilbur Turnblad. He is very good, yet uncharacteristically
ordinary in comparison to the rest of the stellar cast. "Hairspray" leaves
no stone unturned in its entertainment value, and will in turn leave audiences
glowing. The film, which is as light and as airy as cotton candy, will be
sure to shift even the most moody and mercurial hearts among humankind to upbeat
and uplifting positions.
So Petula, Harry, what say you?
"Hairspray" opened yesterday across North America. The film's duration is
one hour and 47 minutes and is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of
America for language, some suggestive content and momentary teen smoking.
Leslie Dixon wrote the screenplay for the new film. John Waters' 1988 film
was the last cinematic entry in the "Hairspray" series. Mr. Shankman's
film also stars Brittany Snow and Jerry Stiller.
Copyright The Popcorn Reel. PopcornReel.com. 2007.
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