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24 Aug 2007


Gay boys and girls everywhere will love Hairspray, a lovely Technicolor confection of song, dance and social message.

Director: Adam Shankman

Starring: John Travolta, Queen Latifah, Amanda Bynes, Nicole Blonsky, Zac Efron

Baltimore, Maryland, 1962. The "pleasantly-plump" (read: plus-plus-sized) Tracy Turnblad, irrepressible in spite of her size, is a fan of The Corny Collins Show, a song-and-dance extravangaza pitched at Baltimore's affluent middle-class (and therefore white) demographic. She longs to make an appearance on the show, but is turned away by the TV station's manager because she is fat and worse, dares support racial integration. (The Corny Collins Show has a token Negro Day every month to showcase black talents.)

Based on the 2002 Broadway musical (which was based on the original 1998 movie). Hairspray stars Zac Efron, Christopher Walken, Michelle Pfeiffer, Queen Latifah, unknown Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad and John Travolta as her mother (3rd image from the top, left).
No matter. Tracy, our plucky protagonist, will not be put down. One day, framed by a bitchy debutante, she finds herself in detention, amongst swathes of black teenagers. They are taken in by her boundless energy. She learns a dance called "Peyton's Place after Midnight." This dance catches the eye of none other than Corny Collins himself. Before long, she's on the show dancing her butt off. But when the station manager cancels Negro Day, Tracy will not stand for it. She joins in a civil rights march, at the risk of jeopardising her career in show business. Like all musicals, you know that Hairspray has to have a happy ending.

Cheesy? Corny? Who really cares? Musicals are meant to be fun, and Hairspray's 2007 reincarnation (it was first released in 1988) is a calorie-loaded two hours of ass-smacking, dirty-dancing, bebopping fun. Not to be missed is John Travolta's fat-tastic dragdition of Edna Turnblad, Tracy's mother. His crinkly eyes, his perfect bouffant and his raspy voice: you never really get past the sense that this is a man (Travolta, no less) in drag, but that's the point. In the anarchic energy of this pantomime, sexual ambiguity can be excused, even encouraged.

Kudos to Travolta: it takes a real man with balls to be a woman. Not to be outdone is the faaabulous (yes, with so many 'A's) Queen Latifah, who plays (what else?) a fat black woman aptly named Motormouth Maybelle. Latifah's on-screen sassiness is a joy to watch, even if she is playing to type.

The teen stars hold their ground too. Amanda Bynes (the only teen queen of her generation who hasn't succumbed to alcoholism, drug addiction or an eating disorder) is glorious as a good white girl gone black. When she revolts against her tyrannical fundie-Christian mother, you almost wanted to throw your hands up in the air and yell hallelujah! Not to be outdone is Zac Efron, who plays Link Larkin, Tracy's love interest: this teenybopper heartthrob's sparkly blue eyes are sure to melt the hardest of hearts. And of course, this show's star is Nikki Blonsky, who turns in a hilarious and heartfelt performance as Tracy. This big girl is beautiful " all the more so because she isn't what society conventionally perceives as "beautiful."

Hairspray 's comedy spares no one, especially not bourgeois white suburbia. Ridiculous prejudices are shored up: claptrap Christian chauvinism, fears of a commie takeover, outright racial bias. The film's social message is powerful. Racial segregation is unheard of these days in the civilised world, and discrimination against people on grounds of race is now illegal not only in America but in many other countries. So substitute racism with any of the bigotries that continue to persist today in so many countries " particularly homophobia " and there you have it: Hairspray's message.

"The time for people who are different is coming," declares Tracy. Amen to that. But more than that, the film shows the historical effectiveness of peaceful demonstration as a tool against authority/authoritarianism. Tracy, naïve, admits to herself that she thought that "fairness was just going to happen." No, it is tougher than that. Hard choices have to be made: you can't have your pageant queen cake and eat your civil rights too.

Thankfully, Hairspray manages to say all of these important things which need to be said (and heard) without actually lapsing into holier-than-thou preachiness. No " Hairspray is too much fun for that. The film picks up where Dreamgirls (the other musical of the 1980s that dealt with racial issues) left off. Staying true to its anarchic 1960s feel, Hairspray transports you back to a time where music, movement and a healthy dose of self-belief could make big changes happen. A timely reminder for all those fighting the good fight today.


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