“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 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.
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…
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.