Archive » July 18, 2007
Focus on Film
By Steven Libowitz
Searching for a good, clean, uplifting, live-action Hollywood movie in a summer filled with endless action sequels, animated family fair, incomprehensible thrillers, mostly pallid comedies, and the occasional (in fact, all too rare) serious independent drama, can be like missing the one shining tree in a forest full of weeds.
But fear not! “Hairspray” opens on Friday, and if you have any love for musicals, or the ‘60s, or East Coast cities like Baltimore, or dancing, or feel-good stories, I doubt you’ll have a better time at the movies this summer.
Sure, it’s an adaptation of the Broadway musical that is itself transmuted from John Waters’ campy 1988 film. But in the hands of director Adam Shankman, the new “Hairspray” comes across as surprisingly fresh and invigorating, somehow craftily balancing ‘60s-era innocence with modern-day techniques, ending up with a musical that doesn’t make you sit up and notice when the singing starts – largely because it rarely stops.
The story takes place in a high school, record shop, and TV variety show set in 1962 in Baltimore, where, like most of the rest of country, racial tensions have begun to build. But while the integration message comes through loud and clear, it’s not the focus of the piece. Rather it’s the dreams of portly teenager Tracy Turnblad to land a slot on the local TV dance party and perhaps wind up with the title of Miss Teenage Hairspray.
The adults in the cast are all veteran thespians, from the marquee, names like John Travolta – who, outfitted in a huge latex fat suit, plays Tracy’s mom, Edna – and Christopher Walken (Tracy’s dad), Michelle Pfeiffer (mother of Tracy’s rival), Allison Janney (mother of her best friend) and Queen Latifah (the local record store owner). But the kids who make up the bulk of the scenes are all newcomers, led by Nikki Blonsky, who was 17 and had a résumé with exactly zero professional gigs when she was cast, and Elijah Kelley, who plays her friend’s love interest and had just a short list of credits before this role.
That the entire cast is captured as a never-ending bundle of energy on film is likely largely due to Shankman, who is himself a boundless source of childlike enthusiasm and (perhaps ADHD-fueled) a zesty spirit. The director, whose previous films – including the largely formulaic “Pacifier,” “The Wedding Planner” and “Cheaper by the Dozen 2” – surely wouldn’t point to such an achievement as “Hairspray,” literally bounded on stage jabbing and dancing like a ringside boxer at a preview screening at the Lobero sponsored by the Santa Barbara Film Festival’s Cinema Society last weekend, as did both Blonsky and Kelley.
“According to my mother, I popped out of her singing and dancing,” Shankman told the audience after the screening, and then added that he also felt not only qualified but destined to direct the new movie because he shared Tracy’s emotions as a child. “I grew up feeling completely like an outsider, so I related very deeply to Tracy’s character,” he admitted.
Shankman addressed how he treaded the fine line between camp and nostalgia, and the inherent difficulties in movie musicals that comes up because real people don’t break into song at the drop of hat.
“I wanted to play it real, because we live in an unreal world,” he said. “Musicals are life but just a little bit more. I think of text as music and I think of the music as the score to these people’s lives,” he continued, adding that, “To me the dancing is just an extension of how they actually feel and move.”
Go see “Hairspray.” You’ll feel, and move and dance, too.
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