Friday, December 28, 2007

It's the principle of the thing...

So, I had a chance to see the movie-musical version of Hairspray last night, as my sister got it for us as a Christmas gift. I would not have been inclined to seek it out myself, as the feedback I’d heard was generally pretty negative. Now that I’ve seen it, I really think most of the opposition has to do with needing to hate it “just on principle.” The cards are certainly stacked against it.

First, the original John Waters Hairspray from 1988 is wonderful entertainment and holds a firm place in many a cult film fan’s heart; plus since it’s just so darn winning, it has many more fans than most John Waters films. Many of these fans question the whole idea of making a musical out of Hairspray – why would that be necessary? Why, when the original hangs together so well and has such a kickass soundtrack as it is, made up of forgotten and semi-forgotten R & B tracks from the ‘60’s? Can a Broadway score really keep pace with Little Peggy March, The Five Du-Tones, and The Flares? The result is likely to be disappointing. Further, could any adaptation match the inspired casting (notice I don’t say inspired acting) of the legendary Divine, Jerry Stiller, Sonny Bono, Ricki Lake (at the time a virtual unknown, believe it or not), Blondie front-woman Debbie Harry, Waters regular Mink Stole, and Ruth Brown? In particular, Lake and Divine seemed to leave an indelible stamp on their roles – they were Tracy and Edna Turnblad in the minds of most fans.

Second, the Tony-winning spectacle of the 2002 Broadway musical Hairspray also has a devoted fan base, with deep and abiding affection for the original cast of Marisa Jarrett Winokur and gay drag legend Harvey Fierstein as Tracy and Edna Turnblad. Such strong acting personalities again left an indelible mark on the minds of fans; while the score (by Marc Shaiman) has never been considered as strong as the film (despite nabbing fistfuls of Tonys), it is certain that Fierstein’s singular delivery and distinctive croak are as strongly identified with the musical as Divine is with the original film.

So, along comes the film version of the musical (certainly one of the few stories to begin as a film, be adapted as a musical, and return to film as adapted), and it faces quite the uphill battle to win over fans who have already made up their minds that it simply has no reason to exist. As is fairly common, the original Broadway cast was discarded in favor of film stars and unknowns, which might not pose such a big problem except that one of those film stars is John Travolta, a personality so freighted with hits and disasters (and little in between), Scientology, tabloid gossip, and star excesses, that he can’t help but be polarizing for any potential audience. Further, he is cast as the beloved Edna, a role fully inhabited in the minds of fans of both the movie and the stage show by iconic gay drag professionals, while Travolta’s most feminine role was easily the almost-forgotten Boy In The Plastic Bubble – 30 years of macho heterosexual leads and supporting roles helping to bury a sensitive performance that could in no sense have been considered drag anyway. NO! REASON! TO! EXIST!

The muttering about this film started the second production was announced, and escalated to full on grumbling and groaning by the time the first trailers previewed. “Is nothing sacred?” cry the fans of both film and stage show, horrified at the transformations taking place, sullying the memory of two beloved entertainments. I heard it – as a huge fan of the original movie I had my own reservations, and each day they were shored up by the venomous sniping at the outrage being filmed in Toronto. Toronto! Do they not realize that John Waters belongs to Baltimore? Like many, I didn’t go see it in the theaters, and rapidly declining grosses saw it dropping by over a thousand screens within three weeks of release.

So, the DVD arrives neatly wrapped beneath the tree, and in the midst of a television writer’s strike besides. Faced with the dwindling returns of reality television and short-season reruns, seeing something else (anything else, actually) had its appeal. So…what the hell. See it we did.

Y’know what? It’s pretty darn fun. I enjoyed it, and sat with an enchanted smile through many of its charming scenes. It’s nicely done.

This is not John Waters’s Hairspray. It’s mostly Leslie Dixon’s, the writer who adapted it for the stage and again for the new film. The plot has some similarities with Waters’s, but at least an equal number of differences. Fat girl auditions for weekly dance show, prevails on talent and charisma, and finds love in the midst of becoming a civil rights activist for the cause of dancin’ African-Americans in Baltimore. Dixon had to pare the script to make room for the music, and hones the focus very nicely. Naturally, some of Waters’ more outré inclusions were lost along the way – close up pimple popping, Sonny Bono’s greasy amusement park operator, belabored subplots involving psychotherapy and juvenile detention, and beatniks embodied by Ric Ocasek and Pia Zadora in jaw-dropping cameos. The locations are simplified, the plot streamlined, the characters pared to a manageable few.

While Waters body of work and filming style make it difficult to take his moralizing seriously (in fact dares you to take it seriously), Dixon clearly has an agenda, and a much more earnest tone. It’s a nice piece of adaptation – with new jokes and sight gags, different taglines, and modified character motivations, it stands on its own much more readily than a more faithful adaptation might have managed. By developing something similar yet altogether different, Dixon manages to downplay direct comparison between the works, which is no mean feat.

Director/choreographer Adam Shankman keeps the plot moving along, most of which is advanced in musical numbers ably sung by the talented cast, including Travolta (more on that later), Michelle Pfeiffer, James Marsden, Queen Latifah, and newcomer Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad. Blonsky has a gigantic amount of music to deliver in this version, and acquits herself ably. She is unquestionably Tracy Turnblad – a character that may possibly be actress-proof; no matter who portrays her, the essential charisma first exhibited by Ricki Lake is out in full force. It is commendable that the singers were well chosen, since there is really very little dialog in the show – most spoken bits are only a few lines setting up the next musical number. As far as the dancing, it seems clear that Shankman is a gifted choreographer, though his film skills don’t always capture his work with the necessary élan – I was watching this on a small screen and musicals often suffer there, but the bigger problem seemed to be Shankman being indecisive about where to point his camera to catch the best stuff. As a result, the singing far outshines the dancing as captured on film. It doesn’t ruin the show, but it is a shame in a story that is so centered on the drama of a televised dance program. Shaiman’s music doesn’t hold up to the period authenticity and brilliance of the original movie’s soundtrack, but it is a serviceable Broadway-style score, and again, does not ruin the show. Blonsky and Latifah in particular have some very fine vocal moments, and almost every cast member has some chance to shine in vocal performance. You may not be humming the songs afterward, but you probably won’t be humming in impatience during the movie either.

While Waters’s anarchic visuals and script have been largely lost in translation, Dixon and Shankman keep in enough questionable taste and sight and sound gags to retain at least a mild flavor of the original’s bite. Waters’s subversive casting (Fat girl! Fat drag queen!) is part of the vernacular here, of course, but Shankman manages to add some subversion of his own, whether intentional or not – it’s really something to see an actress whose sexuality is the stuff of neverending rumors (Latifah) sing a come-hither ditty (much more explicitly than her Mama Morton ever did in Chicago) to another woman, albeit one who is actually a man dressed as a woman (Travolta), whose sexuality has also been the stuff of neverending rumors over the years. It makes one’s head spin.

Ah, yes, Travolta. His Edna really is a thing of beauty – a former glamour girl gone to serious seed, living as a pathetic shut-in terrified of having the neighbors see how far she has fallen, how enormous she has become. In this movie much of the role belongs to a fat suit and a multi-hour make up job; one almost wishes Travolta were hefty enough (and pretty enough) to carry the role on his own (and that someone had coached that bizarre accent into something at least remotely resembling an actual person’s speech.) Nevertheless he imbues Edna with a kittenish flirtatiousness and sexy physicality, and makes Edna’s transition from insecure homebody to canny outgoing businesswoman at least one of the more compelling subplots. While Tracy’s romance with Linc is an essential part of the plot, and her white friend Penny’s romance with the black teenager Seaweed even more so, Edna’s romance with her husband Wilbur (Christopher Walken!) is the real heart of this adaptation. There are many capable actors who might have been a better choice for the part, but Travolta more than carries his own here.

There are some lovely little gimmes for the hardcore fans – witty cameos by Waters and Lake, Jerry Stiller returning in a different role; still others for acting fans (let’s face it, the original cast were not likely to be awarded anytime soon) as Walken, Pfeiffer, Travolta, Alison Janney, and Latifah all dig into their parts like the seasoned pros they are. Zac Efron as Tracy’s love interest stands out in no particular way, but gets top billing on the DVD release, and Amanda Bynes (as Penny) reminds us that bad acting really is a part of the whole Hairspray gestalt. Seriously, was Hillary Duff unavailable? Or anyone else for that matter? But these are quibbles, and part of the way that business gets done in Hollywood these days – Efron’s name on the cover may sell a few more copies to the tweener set, while Bynes picture may make it seem wholesome enough to pass muster with Mom. All part of the packaging.

So, I guess I’m saying give it a chance. Yeah, I know you think it doesn’t belong, isn’t necessary, and resorts to stunt-casting. All of which are to some degree true. Still. While it’s not perfect, it really hits a wonderful note of blithe lightness, and has some very nice moments. And that’s reason enough to exist for me.