Wednesday, August 01, 2007


Hallelujah! At long last, we have a new movie musical that really is a movie musical - an unabashed, unapologetic movie musical that nearly jumps off the screen and challenges all of your silly hang-ups about movie musicals.

Did I manage to mention that Adam Shankman's "Hairspray," made under the invaluable aegis of producers Neal Meron and Craig Zadan, is a movie musical?

Meron and Zadan have eased up to this triumphant moment with a handful of network TV musicals and, of course, finally revived the musical on screen big time with the Oscar-winning "Chicago" (2002), directed by Rob Marshall. An aside: Baz Lurhmann's "Moulin Rouge" (2001) doesn't count. As wonderful as it is, it is too much of an abberation, and along with Bob Fosse's "Cabaret" (1972), something of an anti-musical.

Still, as fine and divine as "Chicago" is, it is surpassed by "Hairspray," if only because "Hairspray" is not the least bit timid or ashamed of being a musical. Bill Condon, who adapted "Chicago" for the screen, as well as the recent "Dreamgirls" (2006), has perfected the knack for backing into his material's musical numbers. In "Chicago," he made singing on screen acceptable by conceiving the numbers as fantasy moments; in "Dreamgirls," the songs are performed either on stage or in a recording studio or dressing room, thereby making them more appropriate for people who are embarrassed by musicals.

Hollywood lost its way when it attempted to make film musicals for people who don't like film musicals. It was futile because these audiences would balk no matter how cautiously on-screen singing was presented. In the meantime, the studios alienated those fans who do like musicals.

With "Hairspray," it found its way back and, for once, gets it right. The people who made this film instinctively know that the best way to introduce a song on screen is to jump right into it. And that's what "Hairspray" does, it immediately opens with the big production number, "Good Morning, Baltimore!" It wastes no time. No timid tiptoing here: It grabs you by the collar and dares you not to have fun.

Shankman's accomplished direction (and, for that matter, his choreography) has raised a few eyebrows, with most critics citing his unwatchable previous film, "Cheaper by the Dozen 2" (2005). What they conveniently overlook is the fact that Shankman also directed "The Wedding Planner" (2001), a tidy, appealing little comedy that actually moved like a musical - a musical without songs, so to speak.

His exultant choreography here, which is virtually non-stop, is equalled by his assured direction. It speaks well of Shankeman's ability that there is not one weak performance in "Hairspray." Everyone shines - newcomers Nikki Blonsky, Zak Efron and Elijah Kelly, veterans Michelle Pfeiffer, Queen Latifah, Christopher Walken and Allison Janney and familiar faces James Marsden and Amanda Bynes, both of whom prove to be revelations here. This film has been wonderfully, adventurously cast, which is not something you could say about the film versions of either "The Producers" (2005) and "Phantom of the Opera" (2004).

And then there is John Travolta in the cross-dressing role of Edna, the mother of the film's young heroine. Travolta's game turn here has been the film's one point of controversy and has also been identified in some quarters as the movie's only weak link. That's because Travolta doesn't really play the role in drag, even though he's been made up as a woman. This Edna is not a broad charicature, a la Divine who played in the original John Waters 1988 movie, or Harvey Fierstein, who played the role on stage.

Travolta attempts to humanize the character, bring a sad poignancy and sweetness to Edna. A.O. Scott put it best in his review of the film in The New York Times when he wrote that Travolta's is "the most realistic, least stereotypical character in the film."

Unlike Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick whose staleness was mangified by the film version of "The Producers," Travolta brings a newness, a sense of wide-eyed discovery to "Hairspray." And thank you to Adam Shankman, Craiz Zadan and Neal Meron for supporting this most wonderful experiment. It works.

And a word about Pfeiffer: Is it me or is she channeling Constance Towers, circa 1963, in "Hairspray"? Everytime she came on screen, impure thoughts of "The Naked Kiss" invaded my mind.

Note in Passing: There were several references to the Styne-Sondheim musical, "Gypsy," in the stage version of "Hairspray." But only one is retrain in the film version. During "Welcome to the Sixties!," Travolta sings, "Momma's gotta let go," a direct quote from "Rose's Turn."

But missing from Leslie Dixon's otherwise fine adapation of the Thomas Meehan-Mark O'Donnell book for the stage musical are two rather witty references to "Gypsy." There was a point on stage when Fierstein, playing Edna, shouts, "For me, For Me, FOR ME!," which of course closes the song, "Rose's Turn."

Also, when Prudy Pingleton sees her daughter all sexed-up for the dance contest and disapproves, Penny declares, "I'm a pretty girl, Momma," a line immortalized by Natalie Wood in the 1962 version of "Gypsy."

Great stuff and, given that Meron and Zadan are "Gypsy" devotees, the deletions surprised me.

(Artwork: Poster art from "Hairspray"; Travolta, dancing it up with Blonsky and Walken in two production numbers from the film; film musical auteurs Neal Meron and Craig Zadan, and Pfeiffer channeling ... Constance Towers)

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Anonymous said...

Great insight into "Hairspray" and the movie musical, Joe! Loved it.

Anonymous said...

I was thrown at first by Travolta's performance in "Hairspray." I kept seeing Divine in the role, and Travolta's take on it is so different. But it grew on me. I think it's a really brave and, in a way, daring performance. He really did make the character real.

Anonymous said...

I agree just about entirely with your observations on the film. I
also missed is Penny's "Gypsy" line (in the play) to her mother when Mrs. Pingleton sees her daughter decked out in a swank dress: "I'm pretty -- I'm a pretty girl, mama." I've a hunch that while that line might have meant something to Broadway audiences, the cineplex crowd just wouldn't get it.

Anonymous said...

Funny, I never missed Travolta when he wasn't on screen. I didn't like his performance at all.

Anonymous said...

Weird thing about musicals: Many of them are among the most successful films of all time, and yet it's like the culture woke up one day (in the 70s?) and suddenly said, "People bursting into song and dance? I can't buy it!" Killer androids from the future; hairy-footed trolls looking for a magic ring; mega-ton robots from outer space transforming into cars and trucks? No problem.

A lot of guys these days seem to think musicals are too "gay" for them, but I don't recall that ever being an issue when I was growing up (mid-to-late 60s). Frankly, I feel sorry for anyone who can experience an Astaire dance or a Rodgers and Hart song and react with anything less than awe.

But there's clearly still a market for musicals, at least occasionally (the huge success of Disney Channel's High School Musical bodes well). I hope to catch Hairspray before it leaves theatres. Looks like a lot of fun.

joe baltake said...

To J. Bryant: I can't figure out exactly when men became so self-conscious and insecure, and so limited, about their likes and dislikes in regards to movies - or so defensive about them. Both my wife and I had fathers who loved the musical theater and who took us both to out-of-town tryouts of big splashy '60s musicals in Philadelphia. And without apologies or hang-ups. They never considered them "feminine" or rather "effeminate." We also commiserate often about how going to the movies with our fathers was always widespread - a Western one week, a musical the next, followed by a war film or spy drama, then a comedy, then another musical. They really didn't discrimate. They were opened to everything, and my dad in particular loved musicals. I don't get it. Exactly when did men become so pathetically uptight?

Anonymous said...

Beats me, Joe. I grew up in Kentucky, and Mom and Dad took us to the drive-in a lot. Genre was never an issue. I saw and loved "Mary Poppins" when I was about six, and I somehow grew up straight (I remember vividly grabbing an umbrella on the next windy day and jumping off the family Oldsmobile in order to "fly" around the yard).

I recently found out that my stepfather, who is very much a regular, small-town guy, names "The Sound of Music" as his favorite movie.

Could it be that these days the open display of emotion in musicals (and melodrama, for that matter) is just too "feminine" for guys who dread being seen as uncool?

Anonymous said...

We disagree on Travolta but you explained my problem with his performance. The only thing that bothers me about Travolta's performance is that he simply isn't funny.

Anonymous said...

Great Post! I sent this to Carrie Rickey on the same subject:

Aside from men being uptight these days (about everything it seems, not just musical films), people have also grown out of the habit of going to musicals because so few of them have been made in the past few years. People in general see them as something alien, akin to subtitled films, while men in particular think they impinge on their manhood. Nothing is worse for a man or boy to hear than the words "sissy," "fairy," the other "f" word, or to hear that they "play like girls." How often have you heard macho men refer to other men, disparagingly as "ladies." Nothing is worse than for a man to be compared to a woman. I'm really starting to believe that homophobia is rooted in a general hatred of women. Anyway, I got off the point. Few musicals have been made in the past couple decades and when they were made, critics treated them as an offense to mankind. I'm thinking of the excessively negative critical reactions to "Annie" and "Th Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," movies that - from where I sat - were perfectly fine. Not perfect, just perfectly fine. BTW, I think both made money, despite the reviews. Anyway, back to my point: People have to get back in the habit. If they can get back in the habit of seeing corny pirate movies, why not corny musicals?

Anonymous said...

Travolta is not mean't to be funny, he represents a group of people in our society that are brow-beaten about their looks. there are many people who would've seen themselves in the role of Edna, and for her'coming out' it would've been a joyous experience. You miss the point if you think she was mean't to be funny, I thought 'she' was fantastic, and Travolta deserves big thanks for having the courage to play such a demanding role so well.