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Hollywood's Musical 'Hairspray,' a Little Too Bouffant

There's something about the journey of John Waters' Hairspray to its current incarnation as a candy-colored, big-budget movie musical that I can't quite believe.

The 1988 comedy was inspired by The Buddy Deane Show, a Baltimore teen dance showcase of the early and mid-'60s, and what turned Waters on was the fusion of rock 'n' roll with outlandish middle-class tackiness — especially the high, laquered hairstyles that doubtless contributed to the erosion of the ozone layer.

Waters was gleeful at having made a teen-message movie with a PG rating: He was, after all, the Prince of Puke, the man who'd ended Pink Flamingos with his homicidal heroine eating a fresh doggy turd. Of course, it was a satire of teen-message movies, with a 400-pound transvestite in the lead. But by the time of Hairspray, the ironic appreciation of kitsch had moved from gay subculture to the mainstream. And by the time Hairspray was turned into a Broadway musical 15 years later, busloads of 60-ish suburbanites were in on the joke.

Now, Adam Shankman's movie of the Broadway Hairspray is getting rave reviews in newspapers that would once have applauded Waters' imprisonment. But I found it tacky in a different way than the original. It's fatuously energized. Every number is meant as a showstopper, with pumping arms, ecstatic frugging, hyperactive editing and climax on top of climax. The songs, by Marc Shaiman, all have the same manic pitch and blur together.

The movie opens with hefty Tracy Turnblad, played by Nikki Blonsky, popping out of bed and bursting into a cheerfully oblivious celebration of her seedy Baltimore neighborhood. It's a crowd-pleaser, and Blonsky's voice is sweet and not too piercing. But our heroine's delusional optimism has already peaked: How much higher can she soar? When the obese teenager lands a spot on The Corny Collins Show and becomes a sensation, we seem to be in a world of village idiots.

It was Divine, as Tracy's overprotective mother Edna, who lifted Hairspray into camp heaven, and it's Divine and her splendid trashy baggage that are painfully missed. For most of the film, John Travolta is a glaring mistake. His face is ballooned with latex that hides that goofy cleft chin — his most endearing feature. With his studied Baltimore accent, he's soft and shapeless, his casting a stunt with no reason for being except as a stunt. His scenes with Blonsky and Christopher Walken as Edna's dim, doting husband are full of dead air.

What saves Travolta is his dancing. He has a song with Walken called "Timeless to Me" that's in a lilting, big band style and is the only number that isn't edited by a Benihana chef. Walken is a musical pro, and when Travolta joins him in a dance, tentatively but with blooming grace, the performance comes together.

As Hairspray becomes more melodramatic, it also becomes more infectious. Michelle Pfeiffer plays Velma, the WYZT station manager and mother of the show's blonde diva. She's sublime — it's as if her bitch-goddess Catwoman had joined the cast of Dynasty. Velma is repulsed by Tracy and wants her off the air; she's also repulsed by the prospect of whites and "Negroes" doing increasingly dirty dancing together. That's the cue for all the outcasts — the fatties and the coloreds — to march for civil rights, and for Tracy's blithe best friend, played by the lovely Amanda Bynes, to swoon over Elijah Kelley as a fresh-faced black dancer. Now that she has tasted chocolate, she proclaims, she'll never go back.

The desegregated finale, "You Can't Stop the Beat," is a blow-the-roof-off ensemble dance-fest that not even I could resist. But it would have been even more fun if the music weren't so homogenized — if it didn't sound the same as all the other numbers, black and white. Hairspray doesn't preach mere color-blindness. The world it celebrates with such mindless irony is also, alas, color-deaf.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.