Hairspray (2007) -vs- Hairspray (1988)

Mark Sanchez, Featured WriterThe Smackdown

“Hairspray” sets up a Smackdown! as unsettling as meeting another person with your name: something is familiar, but the other elements don’t quite fit. Mark Twain anticipated this frustration when he said some items match up the way you’d compare “…fire… to firefly.” Filmmaker John Waters wrote and directed a loopy 1988 hybrid — the teen flick/message movie “Hairspray.” His movies are an acquired taste and cult favorites. Now, a new “Hairspray” just hit the cineplex by way of Broadway. It’s a cinch the newcomer’s weekend box office will swamp the $6.5 million earned by the original film during its entire theatrical run. The original “Hairspray” was a movie with music; the new production is a movie musical. The differences are profound and offer a highly-lacquered Smackdown!: Does “Hairspray” 2007 build on the spirit of the original movie, or does it droop like a hairdo after a sweaty night at the prom?

The Challenger

The new”Hairspray”reconfigures the elements of a known storyline. It’s the early 1960’s in Baltimore and chubby girl Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) dreams of dancing on the local Corny Collins TV show. The kids are trim, well dressed, attractive and white–except once a month when the program features Negro Day. This gnaws at Tracy whose crush on dance regular Link Larkin (Zac Efron) puts her at odds with Amber Van Tussle (Brittany Snow) and her vindictive mother Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer) who manages the TV station. John Travolta plays Tracy’s supportive mom in a heavily publicized performance wearing a fat suit and wig; Christopher Walken plays Tracy’s Dad. Queen Latifah is Motormouth Maybelle at the local record store. Youthful passion butts up against intolerance and snobbery as Tracy and Amber compete for the title of Miss Hair Spray. All this conflict plays out against a backdrop of original songs and dance that John Waters never envisioned in the original material. Adam Shankman directed and choreographed this production adapted by Leslie Dixon from Waters’ screenplay and the musical stage play written by Mark O”Donnell and Thomas Meehan.

The Defending Champion

John Waters based “Hairspray” around the Baltimore of his youth. He loved the music of the early Sixties and the teen dance programs featured on local TV. Baltimore 1962 was racially unsettled, brimming with teen yearning and Waters wanted to create a movie true to the spirit of the times. He largely staged the action in  Baltimore with a quirky group of regulars that included Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad and Divine as her mother, Edna. Jerry Stiller played Tracy’s dad, Wilbur Turnblad. They are vivid and overblown (especially Divine, who died around the time the film was released) and you can’t look away. Sonny Bono and Debbie Harry are angry and dim as Amber Van Tussle’s parents. Waters resolved the dramatic issues with the same devotion to messy chaos that makes his work so memorable. For his fans (I’m one of them) it is silly, excessive and lovable.

The Scorecard

Both films make their points, but from different perspectives. “Hairspray” 1988 creates a credible sense of pre-Beatles Baltimore: The kids do recognizable dance steps to real songs of the period; the scene looks a little rough and so do the characters. John Waters worked with a budget of $2 million; the musical came in at $75 million and it shows. The musical has all the production values of a Broadway show: bright colors, even brighter characters, stylized settings, big dance numbers and specially-composed music. It’s frankly odd hearing a blast at segregation set to high-value choreography and snappy lyrics. That’s how “Hairspray” 2007 approaches its themes:  with a calorie-rich serving of exuberance.

Both films would have fallen apart with a poorly chosen Tracy Turnblad: Ricki Lake and Nikki Blonsky have energy coming out their pores–and they dance well. So does John Travolta, who moves Edna Turnblad in a different direction than Divine. Travolta portrays Edna with a degree of sensitivity and vulnerability that is just short of astonishing. He and Christopher Walken are remarkably good dance partners, and their roles –expanded from the original– create a dramatic texture absent in John Waters’ version. Michelle Pfeiffer easily overpowers Debbie Harry’s Velma Van Tussle. Other characters have more to do in the new “Hairspray,” but not Allison Janney. She’s wasted as the bigoted mother of Tracy’s girlfriend, Penny Pingleton.

Another character here deserves special note. Queen Latifah is luminous in the Motormouth Maybelle role that Ruth Brown portrayed in “Hairspray” 1988. Ruth plays her character broadly without giving a clue about the great career this role helped revive. Ruth was a sensation as the showcased voice of R & B music at Atlantic Records during the early 1950’s. Her career ran dry and Ruth actually struggled through the period where the story is placed. The new “Hairspray” features Queen Latifah singing the touching survival song, “I Know Where I’ve Been.” It’s truly a highlight. I saw Ruth Brown perform; she died last year. I know Ruth would have done justice to the song.

Clearly, there’s affection for the material. John Waters and Ricki Lake have cameos in the new film; Jerry Stiller appears as a different character. Both films cover much of the same territory yet create distinct identities. Are the differences clear enough to choose a winner? Yes.

And the winner is…

The Decision

I own a copy of “Hairspray” 1988 and I’ll buy the new one. Even if the latest is a remake, the two are so different in approach and execution it’s fair to say you can’t fully appreciate one without the other.”Hairspray” 2007 dramatically reworks the original material. Even with 17 musical numbers and dancing it manages to channel new urgency on themes serious then, and serious now. That’s an achievement I don’t expect from light entertainment. John Waters told the filmmakers to make the new film different from his movie and the Broadway show. They did, and the material has a new life. In the years ahead people will read about “Hairspray” 1988 and appreciate it… but they’ll watch the winner, “Hairspray”2007.


About Mark Sanchez 81 Articles
Oregon based media and communications consultant Mark Sanchez is on the fifth or sixth step of his recovery program from his career as a television news reporter. And that’s the way it is. Mark has been an Oregonian since the Reagan administration and shows no signs of leaving. He lives in Portland — a city that is famous for its transit system, its rain, its independent film community and, lately, for the TV series Portlandia, which Mark notes is about half-true, but to protect confidential sources he won’t say which half.

34 Comments on Hairspray (2007) -vs- Hairspray (1988)


  1. I think it’s had to decide a winner in this smack down because you have to set aside the fact that the 2007 version is based on the 1988 one. For example when you say that the 2007 movie wins because
    “Even with 17 musical numbers and dancing it manages to channel new urgency on themes serious then, and serious now. That’s an achievement I don’t expect from light entertainment”
    I that’s in the 1988 version and it’s the essence of the story (un-cool kids, black, and heavy, coming out to be cool). I mean in my opinion you can’t compare the story because it’s a remake. So if you focus on the execution you have two different approaches one based on that implements songs and popular dances of the context time and one that is Broadway styled.
    In my opinion the music and dancing of the 1988 movie gives much more soul to the story than the Broadway style, even though it’s very well made and produced. So does Divine playing a role for a woman in a story about tolerance. I don’t understand why Travolta plays the role though. Also Ricki Lake was the most charismatic Tracy I have to say.
    About the part that says “Ruth plays her character broadly without giving a clue about (her) great career”, I have to say she wasn’t playing Ruth Brown she was playing Motormouth Maybelle and she did pretty well, of course would have been amazing if she sang too.
    In conclusion the two movies have a very different style and it’s good that the story can reach a different kind public. But to my personal taste the 1988 is the winner. It’s funny, charismatic, exciting and you feel like dancing the bug wearing a roach printed dress.

    Sorry if my english is not perfect, it’s not my native language.


  2. Hmmmm, so many positive rievews for this film and yet it left me rather underwhelmed. I hated last years’ Dreamgirls and especially despised Jennifer Hudson’s hideously over-the-top performance, so it was no surprise that I found this weak as well.Primary concern is with the uninspired casting. Where the 1988 film had charm and wit, this one is one big drag joke. Not for one instant can you take John Travolta seriously as a woman, not even in a campy way, and since so much screen time is devoted to him, its a bit sad to see the film lower its’ standards each time it cuts to Travolta’s idiotic performance.Nikki Blonsky has been getting so much good press, but its hard to see why. At best she is an overweight girl who has an average singing voice. There is nothing special about her at all. She lacks that *it* factor that can grab your attention and lets face it, if watching an overweight high school student with a weak voice running around the streets of Baltimore is your kind of thing, you’ll like this. It isn’t my bag at all, and I hated it. No one should offer this woman any more roles in the future she is a total waste of screen.The good? Well you have James Marsden (Cyclops from X-Men’) in perhaps his best role. He doesn’t have a very big role, but he is a fine actor and dancer, and has the screen charisma to set the frames ablaze everytime the machines focus on his face. And what can one say about Zac Efron? I fail to understand his appeal. I’ve said it before he is supposed to be 19 years old but looks like a fifty year old woman post cosmetic surgery. This is no joke. How any thirteen year old girl can find someone like him hot’ is beyond me. When I was a teen, I remember girls around me idolizing Jordan Knight, NKOTB, and Tommy Page, but at least they all looked remotely like men, or boys to say the least. Yuck.The musical score is great, but then again, I would recommend the soundtrack if you liked the music alone. I find that listening to the CD (I have the entire soundtrack on my Ipod) is a much more rewarding experience.Here is an example I had the soundtrack for a full two months before I saw the actual film. Imagine my disgust when the opening track, Good Morning Baltimore burst onto the screen with a plain-jane Nikki Blonsky fatly jumping pavements in what can only be termed an uninspired miasma of cliched film-hell? Disgusting. I’ll stick to my soundtrack, thank you. It was quite a task watching these beautiful numbers done so poorly on screen.I have to give kudos to the only two people here who actually shone Michelle Pfeiffer and Queen Latifah. Now these are two women who deserve to lend their talents to better films I agree but over here they had a few good songs and their segments seem infinitely more superior to the madness that are the other scenes. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if they chopped out the ludicrous John Travolta scenese and re-released this, I just might want to watch it again. They should also cut out Blonsky while they’re at it. Or just remake the whole thing again. But I digress.Bottom Line This was a huge disappointment for me, a lover of the soundtrack. When the best thing about a film is the guy who played Cyclops from X-Men, then you know you aren’t faring very well. Better luck with the next musical adaptation boys. And please don’t cast Travolt a or Blonsky in that one and mess it up.


  3. will u old people stop saying the original is better the original sucked welcome to the 21st century where movie r actually good the remake is incredible


    • Miss Lawrence, what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone on this page is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.


  4. The first hairspray is the best.there will never be a divine and john waters ever.r.i.p. divine luv u.


    • divine is creepy


  5. I’m going with the remake because of two very simple words…Chris Walken.


  6. You are crazy, man!!! Debbie Harry!! Divine!! Sonny Bono!! Ricki Lake!! Pia Zadora!! Ric Ocasek!! Ruth Brown!! Dorney Park (Tilted Acres)!! Even John Waters himself!! – The original movie is classic and filled with a to-die-for cast! But then again, anyone who thinks Michelle Pfieffer easily overpowers Debbie Harry shouldn’t be taken too seriously!


    • u r crazy for thinking the 1988 version could ever be better the 1988 version is a boring peice of shit the 2007 version was incredibly entertaining and lively with an awesome cast. nicki blonsky, zac effron, michelle phfeiffer, james marsden, brittany snow, queen latifa, and amanda bynes before she went crazy, and they r all amazing in their roles and brkng the show to life, while in the original version all the characters are boring, ridiculous and obscene. and just generally the whole first movie was really boring. im glad im just 17 and didnt have tlive in the 80s when movie were as horrible and boring as the original movie. luckily today we have good movies like the hairspray remake. i will admit that i am biased towards musicals since i am in musical theatre as a performing arts school but even without the music the new one is so much better and plus the songs just add so much more to the story and the greatness of the movie the remake is at least 50 times better than the original and im not exagerating i
      im short the original sucks and the remake is amazing


  7. It’s the 1988 Hairspray for me. Maybe it’s a generational thing. John Waters’s original came out near the end of the decade of the ’80s, when admiration and emulation for everything having to do with the 1960s was at its Big Chill Generation height. Waters got the era’s campiness–not to mention the period settings, fashions, characters’ personalities, music and overall feel and sensibility–perfectly just right. Everybody was hilarious, but as if you were eavesdropping on their insanity which all of the characters expressed with their own respective individual sincerity. Divine was great–plus all the pop icon classic co-stars from that era as well as Waters’s stable of film project regulars. 🙂


  8. A mi me parece que John travolta hace un papelón que te cagas!Creo que el tema del racismo lo tratan bastante bien y además demuestra como la sociedad va evolucionando y aceptando la inmigración.


  9. I think the original “Hairspray” 1988 was a much better film than the remake because the original would put the segregation and intolerance problem in your face at every moment while on the other hand, this new remake makes racism and segegration look fun, super and non-existent with pink poke a dots… 🙁
    Divine’s Edna Turnblad was much more human and down to earth, short-tempered and mouthy while Travolta’s Edna Turnblad was too sensitive, too demure, unnecessary and a waste of a closeted gay man “pretending to be straight” in drag….
    This new remake unfortunately did not carry John Water’s trademark inventiness…
    In fact, this new remake looked as if it had been written, directed and produced by Clay Aiken and all the “High School Musical” cast members….


    • you are crazy


  10. Ariel, I appreciate your comment. Here’s how I reconcile the differences: Both versions have a lot to offer. I imagine it’s like having kids — you love ’em both, but in different ways.


  11. I think that both movies rock but Hairspray(2007) has much better songs


  12. Those are great points, Kayla. They go a long way toward a full appreciation of the original movie, the musical and the new movie. They take the same elements and create wonderful stand alone — yet related — productions. That’s the message I conveyed to earlier comment-posters. It’s a tribute to the strength of John Waters’ material that it can be reworked in so many satisfying versions. Your comments really drive home that point. Thanks!


  13. Nice review Mark. I enjoyed reading this. One thing i noticed that links the two movies that i dont recall reading in your review is the fact that most of the songs in the musical are based on important sayings and or events in the ’88 version. For example, Tracy looks at her mom after leaving the clothing store and says “Welcome to the sixties momma.” This quote became a song in the newer movie. Another example is the ladies choice dance in the movie made in ’88. It was a dance that the main lady gets to lead. This was also the inspiration for a the song sung by Zac Efron (Link Larkin).


  14. Oly, I’d like to know why you think the new version offers no competition for the original Hairspray. I love John Waters’ original, but recognize the new movie is based on the Tony winning musical AND the 1988 movie. To my way of thinking both works are original and enjoyable. I’m certain most film fans and cinema historians feel the same way.


  15. the original is so much better the 2007 is a load of shite im sorry simply no competition!


    • the first hairspray was a total crap fest full of boring characters and dead air with nothing interesting that happens in it the remake is amazing bright full of great characters amazing musical numbers and awesome changes to the story the original movie had me falling asleep


  16. Ann, I understand your point completely. All that 60’s music and dance give the original Hairspray a genuine sense of time and place separate from the stylized approach of the new movie and the musical. All three productions have their distinct charms, no different than the various versions of West Side Story I’ve seen over the years. All were different, all special. I’m glad I saw them.


    • original sucked remake is perfect


  17. Mark,
    Nice review. Could not agree more – you really nailed it. I look forward to more of your writing. Finally, someone who does justice to movies from an adult point of view.


    • i agree with your final descision but there was never any contest 1988 version is a boring peice of shit the 2007 version is an incredible and inspired and lively movie


  18. Mark,
    Nice review. Could not agree more – you really nailed it. I look forward to more of your writing. Finally, someone who does justice to movies from an adult point of view.


  19. It’s difficult to really compare the two movies since one is a movie with music and the other is a musical. I’ll always prefer the first Hairspray because it has many of the songs I grew up with in the 60’s.


  20. Thanks for the note, Ashley. The important point about the two Hairsprays is that one builds on the other. In fact, the new film combines a remake of the original material with elements of the Broadway musical. All three have real value in showcasing the subversive artistic sense of Hairspray’s creator, John Waters. All characters did effective work, some of it different in tone and execution. There’s a lot to like in both films and the play.


  21. i think hairspray (2007) is better than the (1988)because it’s more exciting and more funky and better people in it and it’s from this day you know!!


  22. Yeah, there wasn’t enough of Allison Janney, but there’s never enough of Allison Janney, and there was maybe a little too much screentime for Brittany Snow’s Amanda, but I hope I’ll see more of her. Amanda Bynes seemed unchallenged as a really tall 16-year-old with an inexplicibly good tan for 60s Baltimore, but she was still fun to watch.

    As the show progressed I came to see that Travolta’s fat-suit was as much a character as was, say, the town of Deadwood in, well…, you just want to take in the perfection of it’s execution. Walken never seems to give a bad performance anymore, and Queen Latifah and Michelle Pfeiffer were terrific as well.

    The notoriety that accompanied Devine–even though it had nothing to do with this movie–caused me to not want to see it. Hey, I have dogs!
    It was wonderful fun as an unexpected musical and I recommend it as well.


  23. divine will always be Edna,shove off Travolta!


    • both r extremely disturbing


  24. I must confess I never got around to seeing the original Hairspray…(in fact, when my wife told me we were going to the movies Saturday night, I had forgotten that Waters did the original!) I concur with Mark’s assessment that the new film succeeds on several levels
    (not the least of which being the genuine tenderness in the Travolta-Walken chemistry,
    Who would have thunk it?) Now I have to go dig out the original to see if, in providing the Hairspray structure and characters for future adaptations, Waters was more sentimental than I realized…
    wes


  25. I just wanted to say that I completely agree with your decision and your choices in making that decision! The two are so different but the latest one just blended the musical and the original so well! I loved the cast of Hairspray (2007) and I thought that they were the reason for why the movie worked so well!


  26. This is one of those movies that I would never go see on my own but the reviews all seem to be good, everybody I know who’s seen it seems to like it, and my daughter insists I go. The idea of Travolta in the fat suit in drag, well, that was not a selling point for me, but I see I will have to get off my position!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*